Exxon Pushes Back on California Cities Suing It Over Climate Change

The oil giant is attacking its accusers through a Texas court, similar to how it tried to block investor fraud investigations by New York and Massachusetts.

Some coastal California cities now build up sand berms to help protect houses from storm surges and high tides. Others are dealing with erosion and coastal flooding as sea levels rise with climate change. Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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In keeping with a pattern of fighting in court to defend its record on climate change, ExxonMobil has gone on the offensive again to contest a series of civil lawsuits filed by coastal California communities that claim the company is responsible for damages caused by sea level rise.

While the civil lawsuits against Exxon were filed in California, the oil giant is launching its fight through a court on its home turf—in Texas.

In a petition filed Monday, Exxon complains it has become the target of a “collection of special interests and opportunistic politicians” who it says are abusing their authority to impose their viewpoint that Exxon and other fossil fuel companies concealed the dangers of greenhouse gases.

Exxon and 36 other fossil fuel companies became the target last year of civil lawsuits by four coastal cities and three counties in California that demand the companies take financial responsibility for infrastructure upgrades to offset the effects of climate change.

The lawsuits accuse the companies of knowing for nearly five decades “that greenhouse gas pollution from their fossil fuel products had a significant impact on the Earth’s climate and sea levels.” (A 2015 investigation by InsideClimate News showed through Exxon’s own documents that the company’s scientists warned its top executives about the risks of climate change as early as the 1970s and 1980s.)

In the 60-page petition filed in Tarrant County, Texas, District Court, Exxon seeks a court order allowing company lawyers to depose 16 government officials and an attorney representing some of the plaintiffs and to force them to surrender internal records. The company says those depositions and documents are necessary to allow it to determine whether evidence exists to pursue claims against the cities and counties for alleged abuse of process and civil conspiracy.

“It is reasonable to infer that the municipalities brought these lawsuits not because of a bona fide belief in any tortious conduct by the defendants or actual damage to their jurisdictions, but instead to coerce ExxonMobil and others operating in the Texas energy sector to adopt policies aligned with those favored by local politicians in California,” attorneys for the company wrote.

“ExxonMobil finds itself directly in that conspiracy’s crosshairs,” the oil giant’s attorneys state.

The petition claims that the California lawsuits are an extension of efforts by a coalition of Democratic state attorneys general pledged to holding fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change and born out of  a meeting of green groups intent on ruining the industry.

“Even though it has long acknowledged the risks presented by climate change, supported the Paris climate accords, and backed a revenue-neutral carbon tax, ExxonMobil has nevertheless been targeted by state and local governments for pretextual investigations and litigation intended to cleanse the public square of alternative viewpoints,” Exxon argued.

Shifting the Blame

Central to Exxon’s plea to question the California officials is its contention that the climate change fears now being fostered in the lawsuits were never raised in discussions the municipalities had with bond investors.

“Notwithstanding their claims of imminent, allegedly near-certain harm, none of the municipalities disclosed to investors such risks in their respective bond offerings, which collectively netted over $8 billion for these local governments over the last 27 years,” Exxon argued.

Santa Cruz City Attorney Tony Condotti disputed that contention.

“The information in the complaint as to impacts of climate change on the City of Santa Cruz are well-documented, including in the City’s 2011 climate change vulnerability assessment, and our 2017 update, and are included in the City’s bond disclosures,” Condotti said in a statement to InsideClimate News.

Brian Washington, Marin County counsel, said the petition was nothing more than a diversionary attempt by Exxon to dissuade the cities and counties from pursuing their lawsuits. 

“For decades, Exxon has known that carbon dioxide pollution from its products will cause just the kinds of consequences we are seeing in Marin County now,” Washington said in a statement. “We will continue to stand up for our taxpayers so that they aren’t on the hook for all the costs of addressing the damage caused by Exxon and others in the fossil fuel industry.”

Filing in Texas Court, Exxon’s Home Turf

Exxon’s legal gambit follows a similar strategy it has pursued in an attempt to derail climate fraud investigations by the attorneys general for New York and Massachusetts.

Exxon went to court in Texas to persuade a judge to block those investigations, making similar allegations of bias against the company. One of its demands was to depose Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and 15 other attorneys general. Although the judge initially ordered Healey to appear for a deposition, the order was later rescinded and the case was transferred to New York.

The new petition was filed in a Texas state court because, Exxon said, California courts lack jurisdiction over the Dallas-based company. It’s the same state court where Exxon began its fight to head off a short-lived investigation of the company by the attorney general for the U.S. Virgin Islands. Texas courts have been sympathetic to Exxon’s arguments, giving the company something of a home field advantage.