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Slocan council votes to join proposed lawsuit against ‘Big Oil’

Class action seeks compensation for costs of climate change damage
Village of Slocan Council (L-R): Joanna Van Bynen, Jordan Knott, Mayor Jessica Lunn, Ezra Buller, and Madeleine Perriere. Photo: Greg Amos

The Village of Slocan voted unanimously on Feb. 12 to join a group of B.C. municipalities that have pledged to participate in a class action suit against several big oil companies.

The lawsuit would ask the court to order the companies pay compensation for municipal costs incurred because their products have caused damage due to climate change — for example, the costs of addressing the risks of flooding and wildfires.

The B.C.-based group Sue Big Oil is attempting to bring other municipalities on board. Once the population of the pledging municipalities reaches a total of 500,000, a court action will be filed.

Each participating municipality pledges to set aside an amount of funds equal to their population to fund the action if it is launched.

“Small municipalities are positioned poorly when it comes to climate change: remote locations, lots of fire risk, lots of flooding risk, and our resources are limited,” said Slocan councillor Jordan Knott.

“I support this action because I believe that the big oil companies should be held accountable in sharing these costs with the communities that are their customers.”

A class action is a lawsuit started by one person on behalf of members of a group that have a similar claim against a person or company. In this case, the claim would be advanced by one municipality (its identity not yet decided) on behalf of a group of B.C. municipalities.

So far, four other communities are signed on: the District of Squamish and the Towns of Gibsons, Qualicum Beach and View Royal.

West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), a non-profit law firm in Vancouver, is shepherding this process, acting as a co-ordinator, but would not be the law firm representing the plaintiffs if the suit goes ahead.

“We would not be the lawyers bringing the claim,” WCEL lawyer Andrew Gage said. “That would be inappropriate for us to be pressing local governments to do this and expect them to hire us.”

Gage said the goal of the proposed lawsuit is to recover the costs of preventive measures, many of which are already being undertaken by municipalities at great cost. He cites the example of the need to expand a capacity of storm water systems “because what was previously a one-in-500-year storm is now coming every 30 years. That is a measurable impact that can be directly attributed to climate change.”

The class action, he said, would be “taking the positive step of actually seeking to recover a portion of the cost as you would for any other situation where private parties are negligently imposing costs on your community.”

He said the idea is similar to the lawsuits against tobacco companies that took place for several decades after smoking was shown to cause lung cancer in the 1950s.

“The pattern is the same: the industry lying about the science and suppressing the science, and then doubling down to keep doing everything they can to keep people smoking.”

Gage said this is similar to news that has been widely reported in international media: Exxon and other oil companies knew as early as the 1960s that emissions from fossil fuels would dangerously warm the atmosphere, and they have allegedly denied and suppressed this knowledge ever since.

In the U.S., according to The Guardian, since 2017, eight states, three dozen municipalities, and the District of Columbia have sued oil companies for allegedly deceiving their consumers and investors about the dangers of their products, with no court decisions made yet.

The two largest municipal lawsuits have been filed by New York City and Chicago.

In the West Kootenay, the groups Kootenay Climate Hub and West Kootenay Sue Big Oil Action Team are promoting the class action proposal.

“It’s not only Slocan,” said action team leader Greg Amos in a news release. “Concerned residents are calling on Nelson, Rossland, and other West Kootenay local governments to demonstrate climate leadership by joining Sue Big Oil too, to help our communities pay for skyrocketing climate change costs.”


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Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
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