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On Global Warming Dangers, Cities Telling Courts One Thing, Investors Another

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In California, seven cities have sued energy companies for misrepresenting the dangers of global warming, but a review of public records reveals those communities may have done a little misrepresenting themselves.

And ExxonMobil, the principle target of these suits, has had it. It says the lawsuits seek only to use the courts to win a public policy battle it otherwise could not win, and the claims the cities make are undermined by claims they have made to investors in recent months to obtain bond financing.

In its lawsuit against energy companies, the city of Oakland declared “Global warming has caused and continues to cause accelerated sea level rise in San Francisco Bay and the adjacent ocean with severe, and potentially catastrophic, consequences for Oakland.” The filing predicted by 2050, 100-year floods will be occurring every 2.3 years and by 2100, once a week.

But in a statement to investors, it stated:

“The City is unable to predict when seismic events, fires or other natural events, such as sea rise or other impacts of climate change, or flooding from a major storm, could occur, when they may occur, and, if any such events occur, whether they will have a material adverse effect on the business operations or financial condition of the City or the local economy.”

San Francisco’s filing in the ExxonMobil case was similar but even more urgent.

“Global warming-induced sea level rise is already causing flooding of low-lying areas in San Francisco,” the city wrote. “Global warming-induced sea level ‘is becoming more dire every day as global warming reaches ever more dangerous levels and sea level rise accelerates.”

With additional sea-level rise predicted of “0.3 to as much as 0.8 feet” by 2030, the city already needed $500 million to upgrade its seawall now and $5 billion for a more permanent solution.

But to potential bond investors, the city was less certain about the effects of global warming.

“The City is unable to predict whether sea-level rise or other impacts of climate change or flooding form a major storm will occur, when they may occur, and if any such events occur, whether they will have a material adverse effect on the business operations or financial condition of the City and the local economy.”

Santa Cruz, San Mateo and Marin County all claimed to know of massive storms headed their way, thanks to global warming.

“There is a 98 percent chance that the County experiences a devastating three-foot flood before the year 2050, and a 22 percent chance that such a flood occurs before 2030,” it said in a filing for a lawsuit against ExxonMobil. “With 0.3 feet of sea level rise, anticipated by 2030, the County will endure extensive coastal flooding. The economic value of property at risk is approximately $742 million.”

But in the bond filings, Santa Cruz told buyers “from time to time, the City is subject to natural calamities,” and Marin County declared “Natural manmade disasters, such as earthquake, flood, fire, terrorist activities and toxic dumping” were potential risks.

These are coordinated, frivolous lawsuits designed to tie up resources and time from energy companies just because the left doesn’t like them. The language in the filings is too similar, the legal tactics and attorney – Matt Pawa, a New York lawyer who has made a career of trying to extort money from oil companies – too indicative of collusion.

ExxonMobil has requested depositions of Pawa and others to determine the extent to which they are involved in urging cities to say one thing to investors and another to courts in their lawsuits. It says the presence of Pawa, the absence of alarm to investors about the prospect of global warming and the far-fetched but eerily similar claims of the seven communities “indicates the allegations in the complaints are not honestly held and were not made in good faith.”

The seven cities need to either admit ExxonMobil is right and this is an attempt to win a public policy battle through non-democratic means or they need to explain why they told investors one thing and the courts another about the danger of global warming to their communities.

“The level of potential coordination is suspect, and the conflicting representations the parties appear to have made suggest two possible conclusions,” stated a release from the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project at the National Association of Manufacturers. “Either the claims against energy manufacturers are frivolous, or the municipalities have made misleading, and perhaps fraudulent, statements to investors. Either way, the integrity of the lawsuits and the government officials and lawyers behind them has been called into question.”

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