By Karen Savage
The city of Hoboken, N.J., its location on the banks of the Hudson River across from Manhattan making it a poster child for climate change-fueled impacts, has become the latest American community to try to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for those impacts.
The city filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Chevron, Phillips 66 and the American Petroleum Institute, alleging they have known for decades that their products drive climate change but deliberately have deceived the public about those risks.
The lawsuit, like the dozens of its kind filed across the country, alleges that the industry has known since at least the 1960s that the burning of fossil fuels drives climate change, but deliberately failed to inform the public about those risks. The suit includes claims of public nuisance, private nuisance, trespass, negligence, and violations of New Jersey’s consumer fraud act.
“As a coastal community, Hoboken has directly felt the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels and more frequent storms,” Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla said in a press release.
“At the same time we’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars adapting to the realities of climate change, Big Oil companies have engaged in a decades long campaign of misinformation that has contributed to global warming which has disproportionately impacted our residents.”
The city is seeking to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to compensate for past, current, and present costs associated with climate change. It also wants the companies compelled to abate the nuisance and pay the costs of abatement; ordered to prevent future acts of trespass; as well as attorneys’ fees and costs.
Hoboken is only the second of these recent suits to name the API, the most powerful oil and gas trade association in the country, as a defendant. Minnesota included the API in a suit filed in June.
Hoboken alleges that the API, along with ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Chevron, Phillips 66 Company, “concealed the harms of fossil fuels from the public,” “orchestrated massive campaigns to discredit the valid climate science their own scientists had developed,” and “launched ‘greenwashing’ campaigns that feign concern about climate change and promote nonexistent commitments to sustainable energy.”
The companies being sued continue to say the liability lawsuits have no merit and “undermine” what they call their efforts to combat climate change.
Hoboken has been grappling with severe climate impacts for the past decade.
Parts of the city were submerged by up to 10 feet of flooding by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when a 14-foot storm surge flooded 80 percent of the city, causing more than $100 million in damage.
More recently, a tropical storm and an intense rainfall event caused wide-spread flooding and even smaller storms often cause parts of the city to flood, particularly if they hit at high tide.
Sea level in New Jersey is rising faster than in many other areas, having already risen about 18 inches since 1911.
Hoboken has invested $140 million over the past decade in climate change adaptation to protect its residents from future climate impacts, Bhalla said.
“It shouldn’t be on the backs of our residents and other government entities to shoulder these costs.”
As fossil fuel burning continues to heat the atmosphere, the impacts are expected to worsen. Extraordinary rainfall events are expected to become more frequent, with already vulnerable residents facing the greatest impact.
“Make no mistake about it, climate change is a racial justice issue in Hoboken and across cities everywhere,” Bhalla said. “Rising sea levels and more frequent storms have an outsized impact on low-income communities and communities of color, and we must do everything we can to address this trend.”
LaTrenda Ross, former co-chair of the Hoboken Rebuild by Design Community Advisory Group and a former Hoboken Housing Authority resident, said residents and the city’s housing authority have been dealing with harms caused by the companies’ abuse of the climate for too long.
“I remember almost like it was yesterday, the destruction that was caused by Superstorm Sandy and how the Hoboken Housing Authority, its buildings, and most importantly its residents took the brunt of that destruction,” Ross said, adding that residents shouldn’t have to constantly worry about the next storm.
“As a result, in partnership with the city council, we are pledging that the first priority for any funds that may be recovered by the lawsuit will be to benefit residents in the HHA, to help sustain our most vulnerable communities for generations to come,” Bhalla said.
Major polluting corporations should not only pay to rebuild infrastructure, but also costs of doctors visits and other medical care for community members whose health has been harmed, according to Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.
“Fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobil, Shell, and BP have earned billions and billions of dollars selling a product they knew was causing climate change and harm to human health, leading us to this critical tipping point in human history,” Potosnak said. “They researched and documented the science, actively smothered it and spent millions to promote misinformation about the role fossil fuels play in the climate crisis.”
Chevron spokesperson Sean Comey said there is no merit to Hoboken’s claims.
“They are not a serious solution to a serious problem,” Comey said. “We are working to find real solutions to climate change that are undermined by special-interest-promoted lawsuits designed to punish a few companies in one industry who lawfully deliver affordable, reliable and ever cleaner energy.”
Exxon spokesperson Casey Norton said the claims are “baseless and without merit.”
“Legal proceedings like this waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change,” Norton said. “ExxonMobil will continue to invest in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting society’s growing demand for energy.”
The other defendants did not immediately respond to a request for comment.