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Anticipating the effects of climate change, King County sues major oil companies

If successful, the action would create an abatement fund

Rainy Beck/Shutterstock

King County filed a lawsuit in county superior court today against five major oil companies, seeking to put BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch, and Conoco Phillips on the hook for the county’s response to climate change.

The suit, developed by the county along with Seattle law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, seeks to create an abatement fund to address necessary changes to infrastructure, like stormwater management, bridge maintenance, salmon recovery, and public health. It’s similar to a lawsuit filed against the same oil companies by Oakland and San Francisco last year,

“[King County] does not seek to impose liability on Defendants for their direct emissions of greenhouse gases and does not seek to restrain Defendants from engaging in their business operations,” reads the lawsuit.

“This case is, fundamentally, about shifting the costs of abatement back onto the companies,” it continues. “After all, it is Defendants who have profited and will continue to profit by knowingly contributing to global warming, thereby doing all they can to help create and maintain a profound public nuisance.”

The companies, alleges the suit, have had a profound impact on King County—including from the Olympic Pipeline and surrounding Washington State refineries like those in Anacortes and Ferndale, but even including advertising to Washington State residents.

The suit alleges that the companies were repeatedly warned that their business practices were leading to climate change, both internally and externally, and then and “borrowed the Big Tobacco playbook in order to promote their products.”

“Ongoing and future warming caused by past and ongoing use of massive quantities of fossil fuels will cause increasingly severe harm to King County through accelerating sea level rise, among other impacts,” reads the suit.

The oil companies “are qualitatively different from other contributors to the harm,” continues the suit, “given their in-house scientific resources, early knowledge of global warming, commercial promotions of fossil fuels as beneficent even in light of their knowledge to the contrary, and efforts to protect their fossil fuel market by downplaying the risks of global warming.”

The area is already feeling the effects, with increased flooding at higher altitudes, according to county data.

“The companies that profited the most from fossil fuels should help bear the costs of managing these disasters,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine in a statement. “Big Oil spent many decades disregarding and dismissing what is our most pressing generational challenge. We must hold these companies accountable as we marshal our resources to protect and preserve what makes this region great.”

According to county attorneys, the abatement fund “could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”