Only a small number of municipalities in British Columbia have caved in to lobbying efforts by West Coast Environmental Law to join speculative class-action lawsuits against oil and gas companies for the stated intention of recovering the cost of local climate mitigation efforts.
The absurdity of pointing the finger at those who supply fuels, while overlooking the fact that 80 per cent of the climate impact of fossil fuels comes from consumers, is self-evident to many. So, it’s not surprising that most municipalities are giving the campaign a wide berth. Most prudent municipalities prefer instead to follow plans and policies that focus on practical local actions. These practical actions also avoid antagonizing neighbors or fellow citizens who might want to visit the community.
But fresh on the heels of joining the climate litigation campaign, Richmond council just voted to approve a controversial jet fuel pipeline linking southeast Richmond to the airport and a tank farm on the Fraser River.
Even though Mayor Brodie took great pains to state that nobody on his council wanted the pipeline, the council voted in favour of granting necessary access for the line.
On the one hand here is a city council enthusiastically supporting lawsuits against those who enable fossil fuels, while on the other hand choosing to become party to a project that is facilitating increased use of the very same commodities.
Should Richmond now be preparing to sue itself, for enabling climate change by approving the pipeline? This could be difficult to explain to local voters wondering why they are being asked to fund actions against themselves. Moreover, what would the presiding Judge in a climate lawsuit think of this dichotomy? Doesn’t voting for a Jet A pipeline undermine your climate lawsuit just a tad?
Richmond’s municipal authorities have walked themselves straight into an embarrassing moral quandary.
Climate accountability motions are really just thinly veiled threats to acquiesce to demands or get sued. They promote an adversarial process that will burden communities with an activist’s agenda against fossil fuels in general under the guise of recouping supposed climate impacts.
The high costs associated with lengthy lawsuits, coupled with low odds of success, are another reason not to waste taxpayer resources. Richmond’s letter to the Premier specifically requests special legislation just to make it easier to try to win their case. Additionally, litigation advocates are now arguing, absurdly, that legal threats are “consistent with a commitment to co-operation.”
We’re also hearing that the target of litigation is not Canadian employers in the oil and gas sector, but a list of Top 20 international companies. All this deflection does is set a precedent for subsequent shakedowns of Canadian companies who don’t do what the activists demand.
Neither Canadian nor international companies had anything to do with local choices to build a city on a floodplain barely above sea level. Nor were they encouragers of urban-suburban sprawl that required use of the automobile. Local plans for increased tourism and air travel were not forced on Richmond by fuel companies. Tourism Richmond’s goal of growing to 10 million visitations by 2020 simply cannot be accomplished without the use of fossil fuels, nor can the city’s thousands of businesses get by for even an hour without using fuels that create emissions.
Cities can’t have it both ways: encourage fuel use, then sue fuel makers: that is hypocrisy. An adversarial process will burden communities with an interest group’s agenda, ultimately leaving local residents with the bills. Climate change mitigation would be better left to policymakers, not lawyers, working toward the low-carbon future that is essential for planetary success. Prudent public policy on such global-scale issues requires input and collaboration from all stakeholders and holds everyone accountable for their actions.
Stewart Muir is the Executive Director of Resource Works