DeSmog

Chicago Takes Big Oil to Court, Adding Another Heavyweight to the Fight

Chicago is the latest to sue oil majors for deception and fraud — a necessary step toward climate justice, city officials say.
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Credit: Tess Abbott/ExxonKnews

Chicago last week brought the newest lawsuit against Big Oil companies for spreading disinformation about the climate-warming hazards of burning fossil fuels — adding the third largest city in the U.S. to the growing list of state and local governments pushing for oil and gas majors to be held accountable in court.

The case charges BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and the American Petroleum Institute with conspiring together and through front groups to run “tobacco-industry-style campaigns to deceive and mislead the public about the damaging nature of their fossil fuel products.” The fallout of those campaigns, according to the complaint, was a long delay in climate action that has come at an increasingly unbearable cost to Chicago residents — particularly in its low income neighborhoods and communities of color.

City officials say their legal action is necessary for the city to help shift the financial burden of adapting to climate disasters away from those communities and back onto the companies most responsible.

“There is no justice without accountability,” said Mayor Brandon Johnson in a statement. “From the unprecedented poor air quality that we experienced last summer to the basement floodings that our residents on the West Side experienced, the consequences of this crisis are severe, as are the costs of surviving them. That is why we are seeking to hold these Defendants accountable.”

Ted Boutrous of law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcheran attorney for Chevron and chief architect of Big Oil’s legal arguments in these cases, said in a statement that “addressing climate change requires a coordinated international policy response, not meritless local litigation over lawful and essential energy production.”

The city is charging the companies with 10 counts of failure to warn, negligence, fraud, conspiracy, and public nuisance, and it asks for compensatory damages and the disgorgement of profits made in the course of the industry’s fraud, among other remedies. The lawsuit, filed on February 20 in Cook County court, also requests a jury trial, where the companies could face more evidence of their deception gained through the discovery process.

That deception, Chicago argues, includes the oil majors’ ongoing campaigns to “falsely present themselves as corporate leaders in the fight against climate change, claiming to invest substantially in low-emission technologies and zero-emission energy sources, while their business continues to be overwhelmingly focused on fossil fuel production and sales.” 

As one example, the complaint cites a recent BP ad targeting Illinois Facebook users that claims “We agree – the world needs fewer emissions. That’s why we’re working to make all forms of energy cleaner and better.” BP is simultaneously reneging on its climate pledges and increasing its production of oil and gas.

“At the end of the day, the climate crisis that we’re enduring was known by fossil fuel companies — they were warned decades ago by their own scientists of the potentially severe or even catastrophic consequences of their approach,” said Chicago Alderman Matt Martin, who applauded city leaders’ decision to file suit. “These companies should no longer be allowed to shift the burden of paying for the impacts resulting from that conduct onto Chicagoans.”

The Harm to Chicago From Climate Change

It might be difficult to imagine what climate change looks like for a Midwestern city far from rising seas and hurricanes — but Chicago is susceptible to a spate of climate threats.

Chicago’s complaint cites more frequent and intense storms, flooding, droughts, shoreline erosion, toxic algae blooms in Lake Michigan, and extreme heat events like a four-day heat wave in 1995 that killed more than 700 Chicagoans. 

The 1995 heat wave was a “watershed moment,” said Daniel Horton, who leads the Climate Change Research Group at Northwestern University. “Since that time the city has done a number of things to improve community resilience, but we expect more heatwaves in the future as the world continues to warm — so we have to constantly update our policies and prepare for extreme heat,” he added. 

Many victims of that heat wave were elderly, low-income, and Black, residing in apartments without air conditioning. Those groups are still most at risk from extreme heat and air pollution in Chicago, which can coincide to produce “profound public health consequences,” said Horton, like they did when wildfire smoke from Canada gave the city the worst air quality in the world in June. The same demographics were also hit hardest during a severe rain event in July, which wreaked havoc on Chicago’s West Side, and are most susceptible to the city’s more-regular flooding. 

“When you’re talking about the legacy of environmental racism all across the city, too often with regard to both severe weather and other aspects of the climate crisis, the communities bearing the brunt of that devastation are lower income communities of color,” said Alderman Martin.

Chicago is an “incredibly segregated city,” explained Horton, where Black and Hispanic communities are far more likely to live in places that are hotter, have poorer air quality, and are most flood-prone. The city can make decisions to ease the burden on those communities — like figuring out “where to increase our green infrastructure, building more of a green canopy and reducing the heat island effect, deciding where to build cooling centers in neighborhoods that have more vulnerable citizens or people without access to air conditioning or the ability to pay for it,” he said. The more the city invests in community adaptation, the higher the price tag — in its complaint, the city said it is already spending $188 million on climate projects in low-income communities — and that’s the kind of thing Chicago wants oil companies to help pay for.

“There’s surviving, and then there’s thriving,” Horton said. “I like to think surviving isn’t the goal.” 

‘Another Powerful Player’

More than 25 percent of all Americans are now represented by governments taking oil companies to court for climate deception. Chicago’s lawsuit brings “another powerful player into the game,” remarked Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School.

“There’s strength in numbers, and the more entities like Chicago and California that have the resources to do battle, the better, from the plaintiffs’ side of it,” Parenteau said. 

Chicago is suing as similar cases across the country move toward trial in state court. Massachusetts’ consumer fraud case against Exxon is currently in the pre-trial discovery phase, and the City and County of Honolulu is in the process of agreeing what discovery will look like once it starts. Delaware is requesting that the state’s Supreme Court review a lower court’s ruling regarding which parts of its case can be heard at trial. In Italy, the trial for twelve Italian citizens’ lawsuit against oil giant Eni just kicked off.

Parenteau had a long list of reasons why new communities like Chicago would choose to sue now — growing evidence of what the companies knew and how they lied, more attribution science linking specific companies’ emissions to specific damages, the state of California filing suit, plaintiffs winning the fight to keep their lawsuits in state court, and other legal successes against oil majors across the world.

Or it could be simpler than all that. “These cities are beginning to realize just how much money they’re facing to deal with climate effects, and the recalcitrance of the oil companies that are sitting on piles of money and making more every year,” he said. “Maybe it’s too much for them to ignore.”

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