Courts Must Hold Oil Companies Accountable

Rising seas require changes to environmental law

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For decades, oil companies have tainted waterways through fracking, spilled hundreds of millions of gallons of unrefined crude oil in the ocean and, most damningly, driven climate change. Oil companies continually push climate-denying agendas and fail to assume any responsibility for the damages they cause, damages that most strongly impact marginalized and vulnerable communities.

Illustration by Ania Webb

To change this, San Francisco and Oakland filed lawsuits on Sept. 19 against five major oil companiesChevron,Conoco Phillips, ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell — for the potential damages caused by and infrastructural preparation needed for rising sea levels. The cities argue these companies knowingly contributed to climate change and disregarded harm inflicted on vulnerable communities. The courts must put communities and the environment before profit and use this opportunity to hold insidious companies responsible.

These cities and other parts of the Bay Area have good reason to be concerned with rising seas. The Union of Concerned Scientists anticipates that 14 percent of Oakland, 11 percent of South San Francisco and more than half of Alameda will be “chronically flooded” — meaning they will experience flooding at least 26 days per year — by 2100. This flooding will be a direct result of rising sea levels caused by increasing global temperature.

As the Office of the City Attorney of San Francisco stated in a news release, the oil companies’ “contributions to global warming have already caused sea levels to rise in San Francisco Bay and threatened imminent harm to San Francisco and Oakland […] and this ongoing conduct exacerbates a problem that is largely irreversible.”

When low-lying areas of cities such as San Francisco and Oakland are damaged and uninhabitable due to rising seas, community members will be forced to leave due to environmental hazards and flooding. However, the damages disproportionately affect low-income communities of color, meaning many residents in these areas will be unable to repair property or evacuate.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Centers for Disease Control show that the Oakland neighborhoods subject to the most flooding house communities in the top 25th percentile of socioeconomic vulnerability. Most of these neighborhoods’ residents hover at about 40-50 percent of people living below the poverty line.

Historically, companies view costs caused by environmental damage as externalities, or side effects of commercial activity not calculated into the company’s budget. Because of this mindset, such costs and damages become the responsibility of the government or affected individuals. Meanwhile, the true perpetrators of climate change, large oil companies, face none of the consequences and bear none of the costs.

Adapting to rising seas requires seawalls and other infrastructure to stop or slow the effects of flooding and protect the people who may be impacted. It is only fair for companies causing the damage to foot the bill.

Lawsuits against such oil companies are part of a growing legal movement that challenges patterns of environmental injustice and alleviate communities of burdens they don’t deserve. In similar litigation, San Mateo and Marin counties are also suing to hold oil companies responsible for the damages flooding will cause.

It is imperative that courts use these cases to usher in a new precedent — one that values vulnerable communities over big business. The oil companies should bear the financial burden of the damages they cause. If the precedent changes, an increasing amount of externalities will be justly accredited to and paid for by guilty companies.

Cases such as these can help the affected communities and begin curbing the environmentally damaging practices of many companies. While oil companies will easily ignore the moral and ethical arguments for changing their ways, they do care about money. Lawsuits and forced financial responsibility encroaching on their profits may be the incentive oil companies need to take responsibility for their actions.