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Growing B.C. effort wants fossil fuel companies to pay for climate impacts

More communities joining Sue Big Oil campaign as Saanich and CRD explore the idea
Sue Big Oil campaigners in Saanich celebrate after a February meeting where the district’s councillers voted in favour of exploring joining other B.C. communities in a class-action lawsuit to recoup climate impact costs from fossil fuel companies. (Courtesy of Sue Big Oil)

For Andrew Gage, events like the 2021 heat dome and worsening wildfires are making the impacts of climate change visible sooner than many thought they would be.

Those events have fed the anxiety his two kids already had about what climate change means for their future and it’s why the lawyer is taking aim at those prioritizing profits over the health of the planet.

His West Coast Environment Law group’s Sue Big Oil campaign calls on B.C. local governments to join forces against fossil fuel giants in a future class-action suit to recover a share of climate-impact costs communities are paying.

A growing list of communities have been signing on, including View Royal, Squamish and more recently Qualicum Beach. The Capital Regional District in late 2023 voted to explore joining such a lawsuit and Saanich did the same in February.

Sue Big Oil aims to enlist communities with a combined population of 500,000, or roughly 10 per cent of B.C.’s population before the class-action suit would be brought forward. Gage said the class-action model, against companies representing some of the largest global oil and gas emitters, works to their benefit as a judge must rule early on whether a case can be made in the courts.

From California to Chicago, a growing list of states and cities south of the border are pursuing lawsuits against fossil fuel giants over the harm their products and tactics caused. Gage hopes the B.C. campaign can serve as a precedent for the rest of Canada.

He said communities are raising taxes to deal with essential municipal infrastructure being overwhelmed by climate change and the resulting damage from wildfires, drought and sea level rise. The lawyer also argues there’s an economic disconnect at play where those making the products causing climate change are being rewarded, while communities are facing a “growing tidal wave of climate costs.”

The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above houses in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, August 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The campaign got its start by speaking to local governments about recouping costs from companies. Communities were open to symbolic measures like writing letters to fossil fuel corporations about the harms they’re causing, but the Sue Big Oil effort was launched in June 2022 as it became evident legal action would be the only way to hold companies accountable.

Since then, grassroots volunteer groups across B.C. have lobbied their local councils to commit to the campaign as they question why climate impact costs are being passed down to residents.

Those increased costs for taxpayers also come as oil and gas companies operating in Canada have amassed record profits in recent years while rolling back some of their environmental commitments. Suncor’s CEO, for example, said last year the Calgary-based company – which returned a record $7.7 billion to shareholders in 2022 – was too focused on the energy transition and would refocus on its oilsands assets.

“That’s the type of decision you’d expect to see when a company and their investors believe they will never be held responsible for the harms they’re causing,” Gage said.

Suncor is part of the Pathways Alliance, a consortium of Canada’s six largest oilsands producers that said it will reach net zero largely through future carbon capture projects. Pathways Alliance didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Canadian Association for Petroleum Producers told Black Press Media that oil and natural gas are the foundation of modern society and B.C. municipalities could not function without them.

“Funding a lawsuit to sue an industry that has invested billions of dollars in British Columbia over decades, created thousands of jobs and delivered billions of dollars in government revenues to support healthcare, infrastructure, and social programs across the province, is not an efficient use of taxpayers’ money,” CAPP spokesperson Jay Averill said.

Gage often hears the perception that since the public uses fossil fuels, it shouldn’t hold industry accountable for its impact.

“If we’re all responsible for climate change, that means that the fossil fuel industry is also responsible,” he said.

The International Energy Agency forecasted last fall that oil and gas demand will peak by 2030. While other corners of the Canadian economy have reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the most recent data shows the oil and gas sector is the country’s largest polluter and its emissions continue to climb. The sector accounted for 28 per cent of Canada’s GHGs in 2021 and oil and gas emissions increased by 88 per cent between 1990 and 2021.

Gage said those kinds of increases are cancelling out decades of climate action work in Canada.

The lawyer also points to the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long pursuit to sow doubt on climate science and lobby against alternatives that would’ve kept climate change manageable. Internal memos have shown ExxonMobil scientists knew in the 1970s that its products would cause global warming – and other documents show the wider industry knew since the ’50s – but public communications promoted doubt on the matter.

Hidden from the public view, the industry’s scientists accurately predicted environmental impacts being seen today and acknowledged climate change was real and human-caused.

“It’s difficult to overstate just how both cynical but also manipulative these companies have been – on a level similar to what we saw with tobacco or various other manufacturers who were desperate to keep people hooked on their products,” Gage said.

Seeing as tobacco, opioid and asbestos corporations have been held liable in court for the harms of their products, Gage sees it as not a matter of if the same happens for big oil, but when.

Sue Big Oil campaigners in Saanich celebrate after a February meeting where the district’s councillers voted in favour of exploring joining other B.C. communities in a class-action lawsuit to recoup climate impact costs from fossil fuel companies. (Courtesy of Sue Big Oil)

READ: Study suggests oilsands pollutant release vastly higher than official estimates

READ: B.C. watches as California subpoenas plastic industry over waste, alleged deception

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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