TALLAHASSEE - A New York legal ruling earlier this month that exonerated ExxonMobil of misleading investors about climate change should further dissuade Florida local governments from joining similar lawsuits against energy companies.
That’s a key takeaway from the Dec. 10 decision handed down by New York Supreme Court Justice Barry Ostrager that rejected the New York attorney general’s high-profile lawsuit against ExxonMobil, according to representatives of business groups.
“If communities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale care about the facts and care about the law ... then the New York decision is a huge red flag for any kind of legal action that’s being considered,” Phil Goldberg, special counsel for the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project (MAP), told the Florida Record.
Fort Lauderdale earlier this year declined to join litigation against energy companies over climate-change effects. And the New York court ruling validates that decision, according to Goldberg.
MAP challenges efforts by activists, foundations, trial attorneys and others who wage campaigns against U.S. manufacturers. It has identified groups such as the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Energy Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Family Foundation as prime funders of climate-change litigation.
“It’s largely a political effort by the environmental groups that are behind the lawsuits,” Goldberg said. “Certainly, the trial lawyers involved are looking for a big pay day.”
He also said that during the New York trial, it was clear that the Attorney General’s Office was attempting to punish ExxonMobil for taking policy positions that disagreed with the attorney general’s views.
According to Goldberg, the lawsuit against the energy company was simply a distraction to scapegoat some people within a certain industry and let everyone else off the hook.
“There is a lot of concern about rising sea levels, but this litigation is not going to impact that,” he said, adding that the issues associated with climate change would not be solved in a courtroom but by society as a whole, including elected leaders, working together.
Federal courts have already dismissed several lawsuits that brand energy companies’ impact on climate as a public nuisance, while other cases are still making their way through the courts, Goldberg said.
“Any assertion that the companies engaged in any kind of unlawful activity that would somehow make them responsible for climate change has been disproven,” he said.
Local governments in Florida and elsewhere need to focus on developing public policies and innovations to address the climate-change challenges, according to Goldberg.
One of the groups supporting climate-change litigation against energy companies is EarthRights International. The group did not provide a comment about the case when contacted by the Record.
An ExxonMobil spokeswoman declined to provide a comment about the court ruling beyond what the company said in a statement earlier this month. That statement referred to the New York attorney general’s case as “baseless.”
“Lawsuits that waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change,” the statement said. “ExxonMobil will continue to invest in researching breakthrough technologies to reduce emissions while meeting society’s growing demand for energy.”
Ned Bowman, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Marketers Association, also said he saw no validity in going to court to punish an oil company that sells a legal product. Bowman equated that effort to suing a concrete company for contributing to flooding in Florida because the concrete blocks water from being absorbed into the ground.
“They're concerned about global changes in the climate (in Florida), but to sue ExxonMobil and blame them for it is close to absurd,” he told the Record.
The private sector is working to take care of some of these issues, according to Bowman. The federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards have helped to drive private-sector efficiency, leading to large increases in fuel economy in newer cars, he said.
“The demand for gas all across the country is declining because of the CAFE standards,” Bowman said.
Everybody has to take a little responsibility for problems related to climate change, rather than singling out a single industry in lawsuits, he said.
Florida sees about 300,000 people per year relocating to the Sunshine state due to its absence of a state income tax and warm weather. In turn, service stations such as Sunshine Gasoline Distributors and Circle K have to expand their networks to support the additional number of vehicles on the road, according to Bowman.