Florida Justice Reform Institute, Logo

Legal News Line

Fort Lauderdale considers suing Big Oil amidst federal court rulings rejecting climate change theories

By John Sammon | Nov 2, 2018

Gavel Scales

FORT LAUDERDALE (Legal Newsline) – The Fort Lauderdale City Commission is considering suing oil companies over the climate change activists say could raise sea coastal levels to catastrophic proportions.

So far the city has not acted but the possibility of a lawsuit was part of an agenda discussion at a Commission hearing on Oct. 23.

At the session presided over by Fort Lauderdale Mayor Lee Trantalis, officials members were briefed by Marco Simons, program director at Earthrights International, a nonprofit legal organization that serves as counsel for clients in environmental litigation.

Simons told the Commission his organization represents a number of communities, for example the City of Boulder, Co., in a lawsuit against Exxon.

“Greenhouse gases are almost entirely due to fossil fuel use,” Simons told the Commission. “The temperature in Florida is greater now than the overall average global temperature.”

Simons said seas around Florida could rise seven inches by 2030 and cause a host of related problems, from increased hurricane activity to lesser known irritants, greater populations of mosquitos and red algae tides in the ocean.

Over 2,000 homes could flood, he said.

Days where temperatures hit 95 degrees in Fort Lauderdale are increasing and Simons said a nine degree increase is expected by 2100.

He added that scientific reports as early as the 1960s predicted dire consequences by the year 2000, but were not heeded.

Trantalis asked about the cost of pursuing litigation. Simons told him his organization doesn’t receive a dime from clients but pursues cases on a “pro bono” basis.

“We think it’s the best way to get accountability,” Simons said.

Trantalis asked about the cost should a case be lost in court.

“The cost of losing is always a possibility,” Simons said.

No action by the Commission was taken. Trantalis indicated dialog with Earthrights was initiated by the organization offering to provide an update on the situation.       

More than a dozen cities and counties in California, Colorado, New York and Washington were among the first government entities to file suit against oil companies to hold them financially responsible for the impacts of climate change. 

The companies moved the cases to federal court, where claims have not fared well. In July, a New York federal judge dismissed the lawsuit brought by New York City, finding that the issue has already been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

District Judge John Keenan held that it's not the job of the judiciary to regulate greenhouse gases. That task rests with the federal government, his opinion states, endorsing the thoughts of the California federal judge who tossed lawsuits from San Francisco and Oakland in June.

A day after the New York claims were tossed, Baltimore City Solicitor Andre M. Davis took aim at 26 companies that transport and market fuels in its waters with similar climate change allegations as made by the other government entities.

And early in July, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin also filed suit. 

To date, Rhode Island's and Baltimore's lawsuits remain in state court. 

As for the Fort Lauderale proposal, William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute,said the courtroom is not the place to pursue solving climate change.

“This would be a baseless lawsuit (oil companies),” he told Legal Newsline. “This is more properly handled by the legislative and executive branches of government. A courtroom is not the proper venue."