Florida Record

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Fort Lauderdale still weighing suit against fossil fuel companies, opponents argue ineffective, waste of time and money


By John Breslin | Jan 21, 2019

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City leaders in Fort Lauderdale are continuing to ponder whether to follow other municipalities and file suit against fossil fuel companies in a bid to extract money to offset the potential cost of climate change.

Climate activists are urging the Fort Lauderdale City Commission to file suit on behalf of the city against oil and gas companies, with one organization offering its legal expertise for free.

But the move, mirroring similar suits in other cities, including New York and San Francisco, is facing push back from opponents who argue it is an ineffective means of dealing with the fallout from climate and could do serious damage to the state's economy.

Earth Links International, the Washington D.C.-headquartered environmental legal organization, told Fort Lauderdale commissioners that fossil fuel companies, including Exxon, should pay for some of the costs because they knew of the damage being done, but embarked on a campaign to conceal information and mislead the public.

The fossil fuel industry "pursued a strategy of reckless production while knowing that it would result in serious climate impacts -- and both concealing and misleading the public about that knowledge,” Marco Simons, the group's program director told the commissioners at a meeting in November.

"Industry scientists were urging the companies, decades ago, that there was little or no time left to make the shift away from fossil fuels," he added. "So, it is disingenuous for the industry to now claim that there are no viable alternatives, when they played a huge role in ensuring that no one was looking for alternatives until it was too late.”

Earth Links was not able to immediately to respond to further requests for comment from the Florida Record.

Sal Nuzzo, of the Tallahassee-headquartered free market think tank, The James Madison Institute, opposes municipalities, including Fort Lauderdale, to taking legal action, and added that initial court rulings have favored the industry.

"These lawsuits are an ineffective means of dealing with and solving a global problem that we all play a role in contributing to on a daily basis," Nuzzo, who  heads the institute's Center for Economic Prosperity, said in a detailed response to questions from the Florida Record.

He added, "Given the lack of legal success in the past, filing a lawsuit only takes time and resources away from working towards meaningful solutions that balance environmental responsibility with economic and job growth."

A U.S. District Court has already dismissed a similar law suit filed by New York City, which is appealing to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Other suits by San Francisco and Oakland were also dismissed.

And, the Ninth Circuit has already indicated it is unlikely to rule in favor of suits against the oil industry as it has already dismissed appeals by the state of California and by a group of Alaskan villagers.

In dismissing the cases in New York, San Francisco, and Oakland, the judges ruled that this is an issue that is better managed by the legislative and executive branches, Nuzzo explained.

"The Supreme Court has ruled on this as well in American Electric Power v. Connecticut in 2011, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the EPA and Congress are the appropriate bodies to address policy with greenhouse gas emissions." the center director said.

But he warned, "If a potential lawsuit somewhere in Florida is successful, it could lead to multiple judges issuing multiple opinions in multiple states.

"Additionally, if successful, this could open up a pandora’s box of similar lawsuits against other energy-intensive industries."

Nuzzo, who agrees climate change is an issue that must be addressed, also believes manufacturers and other businesses have been, and are, proactive in addressing the damage scientists believe will be caused by man-made climate change.

They should be "commended for their efforts, not dragged into court," he argues, adding that manufacturers have reduced emissions by 10 percent over the last 10 years while the economy has grown by 19 percent.

Nuzzo does believe trial lawyers are involved in advancing climate litigation, with firms "picking and choosing select cities with the sole objective to gain significant contingency fees."

He said, "Florida officials should reject these trial lawyers’ overtures since they have been unsuccessful to date, and will ultimately not meet the intended objectives to address climate change."

Simons, of Earth Rights International, told the Fort Lauderdale commissioners that his organization would work pro-bono, but has said in presentations to other municipalities in Colorado that it may be necessary to partner with private counsel at trial stage.

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