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OPINION

Multnomah County, Oregon’s Latest Climate Lawsuit Threatens America’s National Security

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

What began as a trickle of climate change lawsuits has become a stream in recent years, with litigation filed nationwide in state and local courts, the latest from Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes Portland. Multnomah County officials and other plaintiffs hope to collect billions in damages from American energy companies by blaming them for the global phenomenon of climate change. 

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The problem? Suing energy producers has major - and possibly catastrophic - implications for America’s energy security, foreign relations, and national security. Given the potential fallout, plaintiffs should think twice before suing over climate change.

By suing American energy companies, as Multnomah County just did, plaintiffs risk tilting the advantage to America’s adversaries, including state-owned energy companies that produce more carbon-intensive fuels and whose interests are routinely hostile to America’s national security. Successful lawsuits could shift the bulk of production to America’s adversaries, jeopardizing America’s energy security and rolling back the considerable progress we’ve made toward shedding our dependence on energy imports.

Evidence speaks clearly to this threat. In October 2021, the New York Times reported that foreign state-owned companies will likely increase oil and gas production if U.S. and European companies reduce supply because of climate concerns. In fact, economist Michael Lynch forecasted foreign-owned energy producers in OPEC will boost their share of the global oil and gas market from 55% to 75% by 2040. This trend could intensify if Western companies are forced to cut back production as they defend themselves from a barrage of lawsuits.

Ironically, climate lawsuits haven’t targeted foreign state-owned energy companies such as Saudi Aramco, PetroChina, Gazprom, Rosneft, and PDVSA, all exceptionally high emitters from adversarial regimes. In other words, the climate litigation lobby has absolved these high emission trouble spots while targeting American producers, a strategy that could force more production into the arms of some of the world’s biggest emitters. This fact shows the clear hypocrisy of the climate litigation lobby.

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With oil and natural gas experiencing increased demand, energy prices remaining volatile, and U.S. officials seeking to reduce Russian energy imports, it’s clear that strengthening America’s energy security is critically important. It makes no sense, then, to constrain the domestic energy companies who provide essential products that Americans continue to demand. Doing so not only makes achieving these objectives more difficult; it also threatens energy supplies that could bring much needed downward pressure on energy prices for American families and businesses.

The narrative told by plaintiffs has at least two major plot holes. First, the entire world emits greenhouse gases through our daily activities, which means American firms aren’t solely responsible for climate impacts. When lawsuit activists speak of global warming, they themselves acknowledge the phenomenon is worldwide. Despite that, their lawsuits exempt foreign state-owned energy producers.

Second, there is a strong nexus between the fossil fuels spotlighted by these lawsuits and national security. The American military’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels won't likely change for decades, a point underscored in an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court filed by Air Force General (ret.) Richard Myers and Navy Admiral (ret.) Mike Mullen, both former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They argued that “energy security and national security go hand-in-hand” and that “reduction in fossil-fuel use can be accomplished only through comprehensive international, multi-lateral negotiations and treaties led by the Legislative and Executive branches. This is how reduction of nuclear weapons was achieved during the Cold War.”

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Given the broad implications of climate lawsuits for both American energy security and national security matters, it makes no sense to adjudicate them in state and local courts whose judges lack the core competency to address challenges of such global magnitude. Nonetheless, elected leaders in over two dozen jurisdictions continue trying to make American energy producers liable for global climate change, using our courts to address an issue more appropriately handled by elected lawmakers. 

Climate lawsuits aren’t intended to fight climate change and certainly aren’t aimed at benefiting Americans. As Peterson Institute Senior Fellow and renowned economist Dr. Gary Hufbauer has pointed out, their goal, as plaintiffs freely admit, is to saddle American energy producers with damages so large that they raise energy prices drastically or go out of business. According to a lawyer representing Colorado plaintiffs, the goal is to drive up prices at the pump and create even higher household electric bills, Dr. Hufbauer also argued. Who is left unscathed? The foreign state-owned energy producers, who will gladly welcome greater market share and increased geopolitical influence from the aftermath of climate lawsuits against their Western competitors.

It’s time for state and local politicians to stop aiding and abetting our foreign adversaries by making American energy producers defend themselves in court for making products we all demand. The risk to America’s energy security and national security status is simply too high.

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Steve Bucci, who served America for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, is a visiting research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

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