Members of the Force of Nature Alliance protest outside of city hall prior to a Jan. 23 council meeting. photo Patrick PennerPatrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Although no commitments have been made, Port Moody council will debate joining a class action lawsuit against major fossil fuel companies.

A Feb. 13 delegation brought forward by local environmental groups – which was previously barred from presenting – successfully convinced council to consider joining the Sue Big Oil campaign.

“We can’t underestimate the damage that fossil fuels have done in terms of climate change,” said Mayor Meghan Lahti. “Anything that we can do in terms of trying to mitigate the costs for the residents of Port Moody, we should be considering.” 

Sue Big Oil was initiated in June, 2022 by the non-profit West Coast Environmental Law. It is attempting to sway enough municipalities to join and certify a class action suit in an attempt to recoup significant costs local governments are facing related to climate change.

The municipalities of Gibsons, View Royal, and Squamish have signed on, along with Qualicum Beach and Slocan just in the last week.

Port Moody’s environmental costs associated with its Climate Action Plan are estimated at up to $11.7 million by 2040.

Justin Arsenault, local resident and member of the environmental group, Laudato Si’ Circle, said without finding a way to offset these costs, taxpayers will be on the hook.

He said Port Moody has already experienced climate-related expenses, providing its Shoreline Trial Boardwalk replacement project and 2021 heat dome as examples, along with the increased risks of flooding, landslides and forest fires as examples.

“These costs will only rise. Without additional funds, we will be faced with a choice between raising taxes, cutting services, or leaving Port Moody vulnerable to climate impacts,” Arsenault said.

If Port Moody were to join the campaign, it would need to pledge $1 per resident (around  $36,000), and only after a local government had decided to step up as the lead plaintiff.

If the case is determined to have merit and certified by a judge, there would be a range of funding options, but a future council would be under no obligation to make further financial contributions, Arsenault said.

He added the municipality that decides to be the lead plaintiff would be protected from having to pay a portion of the fossil fuel companies’ legal fees if the suit is unsuccessful.

Andrew Gage, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, said the municipality which signs on as lead plaintiff will have significantly more resource demands on it, and would be required to hire the legal team specializing in class action law.

No local government has yet stepped up to that role, and Gage said the campaign is currently just trying to demonstrate there is broad support for certification.

“For the party that ultimately becomes a lead plaintiff, this is a big undertaking,” Gage said. “I think a lot of the concerns come from the assumption that we’re asking the municipalities to do more right now than we actually are.”

Lahti did not dismiss the possibility that Port Moody could become the lead plaintiff in the case, but added council would need to discuss what that might involve.

Arsenault referenced 2022 polling showing Sue Big Oil is popular among B.C. residents across the political spectrum, when they understand it could offset tax increases related to climate costs.

He noted more than 40 local and state governments in the U.S. currently have lawsuits against fossil fuel companies, along with similar cases in Germany and Switzerland.

Arsenault also referenced 28 Canadian law professors signing a joint letter in 2019 advocating for legal actions by Canadian municipalities. 

“Cases like Sue Big Oil can succeed. We’ve seen it in the lawsuits against tobacco and opioid (companies),” Arsenault said.

He said scientists are increasingly able to attribute specific emission totals to specific companies through their operations and products.

Only 90 companies are responsible for nearly two-thirds of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, he added.

Arsenault further detailed how fossil fuel companies have been aware their products were leading to climate change since 1959, and by the 1970s and 1980s, had detailed information about their impacts.

He continued that when governments attempted to start regulating the industry in the 1980s and 1990, fossil fuel companies engaged in a well-documented misinformation and lobbying campaign to prevent further action.

Council voted unanimously to refer the delegation’s request back to staff, and report back with next steps for discussion at a future meeting.

The delegation was initially denied a chance to present their delegation to council in January, with the city arguing that it had “no jurisdiction” on the issue. The environmental groups organized a protest outside city hall, and appealed to council during public input period before the decision was reversed.

By Patrick Penner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Feb 16, 2024 at 16:37

This item reprinted with permission from   Tri-Cities Dispatch   Coquitlam, British Columbia

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