By Karen Savage
The Garden State could become the next to file a lawsuit against major fossil fuel companies to hold them accountable for the costs of climate change.
The New Jersey Senate’s environment and energy committee on Monday approved a resolution asking Governor Phil Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal to “pursue legal action” against fossil fuel companies for climate-related damages.
“It just seems like it’s a no-brainer to hold these companies accountable,” said John Weber, Bradley Beach’s borough council president. He spoke at a public hearing on the resolution, which was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Sen. Joseph P. Cryan; and co-sponsored by Sen. Christopher Bateman.
The legislators are hoping to force the companies to compensate New Jersey for climate-related damages already incurred and for infrastructure costs needed to protect its residents.
Speakers at the public hearing, which was also streamed online, were overwhelmingly in favor of the resolution. It will now be referred to the senate for a full vote. While not binding, if passed, it will strongly urge the governor and AG to take legal action.
“I was absolutely astonished to learn what the fossil fuel companies knew and how long ago they knew it,” Weber said, adding that his community, along the shore about halfway between New York City and Atlantic City, has been forced to divert taxpayer money from other necessities to recover from climate damages, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
It is estimated that Sandy cost the state $70.2 billion in economic damage. Much of that cost was borne by local communities.
“In total, Superstorm Sandy cost [Tom’s River Township] approximately $62 million, $33 million of which was un-reimbursable,” councilwoman Laurie Huryk said, adding that the township has still not recovered and was recently forced to raise municipal taxes.
While Sandy left behind catastrophic damage, Huryk said an increasing number of storms and extreme weather events have hit the state.
“Over the past 40 years, the federal flood insurance program has paid almost $600 million to Tom’s River properties,” Huryk said. “If Tom’s River were a state, our properties would be 12th in the nation for federal flood insurance payments.”
Rising temperatures and sea levels have threatened property and endangered the health of New Jersey residents.
Atlantic City has seen a nearly two-fold increase in high tide, or sunny day flooding, according to a report released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The city had nine days per year of high tide flooding in 2019, compared to five in 2000. That number is expected to reach 20 to 35 days per year by 2030 and to as high as 155 by 2050.
As storms grow more fierce and increase in frequency, future damage will be inevitable, Huryk said.
Costs to the state’s taxpayers are already skyrocketing, said Jeff Tittel, senior chapter director for the New Jersey Sierra Club.
“Just two months ago, the New Jersey Highway Authority voted to spend 2 billion to raise the Garden State Parkway in Atlantic and Ocean County because it’s chronically flooding along the Bass River,” Tittel said.
Raymond Cantor, vice president of government affairs with the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, was the only speaker to oppose the resolution.
“Climate change and the policies that are needed to address it are not a matter for courts but one for legislators,” Cantor said. “These suits, if filed, will go nowhere and waste taxpayers’ money.”
“Legally, every case that has been brought on this matter has been dismissed by the courts,” Cantor falsely said.
As evidence, Cantor referred to Connecticut’s suit against American Electric Power, and to cases brought by the cities of New York, Oakland and San Francisco against several fossil fuel companies.
While Connecticut’s case was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, the dismissal of New York’s climate liability suit is currently under review by the Second Circuit. The Ninth Circuit recently overturned a lower court’s dismissal of suits filed by Oakland and San Francisco.
Cantor failed to mention that more than a dozen climate change-related cases have been filed against fossil fuel companies by municipalities across the country. Most of those cases are currently proceeding in state courts.
New Jersey should join those municipalities, Tittel told the committee.
“They’ve known, they’ve lied, they’ve covered up, and we’re seeing the damage,” Tittel said. “The state of New Jersey should join with Rhode Island and Massachusetts and other states and cities to hold them accountable, and to make the polluters pay otherwise we’re going to bankrupt ourselves trying to deal and to mitigate the impacts we’re seeing.”