Marin, San Mateo Counties Fight Fossil Fuels in Court

A complaint filed Monday with the California Superior Court names 37 oil, gas, and coal companies.

Counties to the north and south of San Francisco have filed an official complaint with the California Superior Court in response to rising sea levels. Marin and San Mateo Counties, in collaboration with the city of Imperial Beach, have asked the court to hold 37 oil, gas and coal companies accountable for rising sea levels, which are causing environmental harm and taking a toll on taxpayers. According to the plaintiffs, the companies are aware of the damage their fossil fuel products are inflicting on the environment.  In addition, they argue, the defendants have sought to hide their activities.

Many of the defendants named are major oil corporations: Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and Conoco Phillips are all listed. The 37 companies listed are responsible for around 20 percent of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane pollution released in the past fifty years.

“Instead of working to reduce the use and combustion of fossil fuel products, lower the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, minimize the damage associated with continued high use and combustion of such products, and ease the transition to a lower carbon economy, Defendants concealed the dangers, sought to undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation, and engaged in massive campaigns to promote the ever-increasing use of their products at ever greater volumes,” states the complaint, which was filed with the California Superior Court on Monday. 

The formal complaint comes after a particularly wet winter, which resulted in extensive landslides, flooding, destroyed roads and downed power lines. Marin County was one of the recipients of Federal Emergency Management Agency funding in January, to supplement the money spent by the state and the local emergency teams to manage the storm’s damage. In March, it was estimated that the cost of infrastructure repairs in the county would total almost $10 million. But last winter’s storm is just the beginning: experts predict that before the year 2100, more than 12,000 homes and businesses will be threatened by rising tides and surge flooding. 

“Sea level rise is here and we’re experiencing it first hand in Marin, as roadways continually flood with king tides and storms,” says Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears. “The best available science shows billions of dollars of homes, businesses, roads and other facilities, as well as thousands of acres of beaches, wetlands and habitat areas, are at risk from rising seas and more severe storms. The cost of trying to protect them, and the human anguish over those that will be lost, will be shocking and crippling.”

San Mateo County is not much better off. According to a 2009 Pacific Institute report, the county has more real estate and people at risk from rising tides than any other county in the state. 

And Imperial Beach, located just north of Mexico, has the highest poverty rate in San Diego County. “As a low-income coastal community, we have no capacity to pay for the adaptation measures needed to protect ourselves from these impacts,” says Mayor Serge Dedina.

“The environmental harm these companies knowingly caused to our precious shorelines, and the entire world, and their deliberate efforts to conceal those frightening truths, jeopardizes the public’s health and places the financial burden of those consequences on the taxpayers,” says San Mateo County Board of Supervisors President Don Horsley. “With this legal action, the County of San Mateo and our partners in Marin County and Imperial Beach are standing up for our residents and businesses to hold these companies accountable for their emissions and lay blame where it truly belongs. The damage they’ve caused and continue to cause is unacceptable. But the fact that they’d prioritize their bottom line over the health and security of the public — including children — in the face of hard science is unconscionable.”


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