SF, Oakland file civil suits against big oil companies over sea level rise

City attorneys Dennis Herrera of San Francisco and Barbara Parker of Oakland held a waterfront news conference this morning to announce a pair of civil lawsuits against the world's top five fossil fuel companies.

The cities allege that big oil companies have known since the 1970s or early 1980s that consumption of fossil fuels would lead to global climate change and the accelerated rise of sea levels, but continued to produce, market and distribute a staggering volume of fossil fuels.

They sought to conceal that information from their customers and the general public and downplay the catastrophic risks involved. In doing so, Big Oil engaged in a multi-million dollar misinformation campaign and effectively "copied a page from the Big Tobacco playbook," Herrera said.

Despite scientific consensus, the defendants continue to "engage in massive fossil fuel production and execute long-term business plans to continue and even expand their fossil fuel production for decades into the future," the suit says.

Oakland and San Francisco are asking the courts to hold Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips liable for the cost of building sea walls and other infrastructure necessary to offset the impacts of rising sea levels, which would result in the loss of billions of dollars worth of public and private property along the coast.

"As a city surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco would be devastated by this," Herrera said at the news conference at the city's Brannan Street Wharf.

Herrera and Parker said that the actions of the oil companies have already led to the rise of sea levels here in the Bay Area, with some scientists projecting as much as 10 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century.

They said the defendants have created a public nuisance and need to be held accountable, and can be made to pay into an abatement fund.

"We think it's a compelling case and we plan on moving as aggressively as possible," Herrera said.

In Oakland, some of the areas most vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise are neighborhoods where many residents are African American, Hispanic or have low incomes. Those populations tend to live at lower sea levels, where the impacts of flooding associated with storm surge are likely to be more severe.

"This burden will be disproportionately born by the people with the least resources," Parker said.

Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the lawsuit a "bold and necessary step" for the cities of Oakland and San Francisco to protect their communities.

"It is appropriate that people are now looking to the courts, instead of legislators, to help hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their contributions to sea level rise and other climate impacts," Kimmell said in a statement.

The two cities' lawsuits follow similar ones that Marin and San Mateo counties and San Diego County's City of Imperial Beach filed in July against 37 oil, gas and coal companies for allegedly knowingly contributing to the environmental crisis over a period of nearly 50 years.