Democrats’ new climate plan says polluters shouldn’t receive immunity from lawsuits for climate impacts

Some environmental groups criticized the plan for lacking ambition and not directly targeting fossil fuel production.

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On Tuesday, June 30, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, released a comprehensive action plan for tackling climate change. 

Some environmental groups criticized the plan for lacking ambition and not directly targeting fossil fuel production. However, the Democrats’ agenda does support a powerful provision for holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their contributions to the disastrously warming planet: Not granting them legal immunity from Congress.

This principle represents a key policy position as state and municipal governments across the country seek to hold companies like ExxonMobil liable in court for decades of alleged deception on climate change.

Just last week the attorneys general of Minnesota and the District of Columbia filed back-to-back consumer protection lawsuits against Exxon and other major oil industry companies and trade groups. This litigation is reminiscent of state lawsuits against the tobacco industry.

Over a dozen municipal governments as well as the state of Rhode Island and a commercial fishing association have also sued fossil fuel companies, asking them to pay for climate-related damage and adaptation efforts.

The fossil fuel industry has fought these lawsuits tooth-and-nail. It has also floated the idea of a “liability waiver” from Congress — which would guarantee blanket immunity from lawsuits asking these companies to pay up for past, current, or future climate impacts — in exchange for a small price on carbon.

One proposed framework for carbon pricing offered by a group called the Climate Leadership Council even called specifically for a liability waiver as well as gutting the Clean Air Act’s existing legal authority to regulate climate pollution. The Climate Leadership Council, a coalition that includes major fossil fuel companies like Exxon, Shell, and ConocoPhillips as founding members, later dropped this liability waiver proposal from its carbon pricing plan.

But as climate liability lawsuits against Big Oil begin to ratchet up, and as corporations more broadly seek legal immunity from claims related to the coronavirus, the House Democrats appear to be opposed to the idea of granting the fossil fuel industry a liability shield.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) in May led a group of 60 House members in writing a letter to House leadership urging them to oppose legal immunity language in COVID-19 relief legislation that would also apply to fossil fuel companies. “The nation’s efforts to respond to one catastrophic global crisis should not be the occasion to immunize polluters from the legal consequences of helping create another catastrophic global crisis,” Raskin said in press release announcing the letter.

In Congressional Democrats’ new climate action plan, this exclusion of legal immunity for polluters is found in a section on carbon pricing. Buried on page 287 in the more than 500 page plan is the statement: “Congress should not offer liability relief or nullify Clean Air Act authorities or other existing statutory duties to cut pollution in exchange for a carbon price.”

The Center for Climate Integrity, which advocates for holding fossil fuel companies accountable for the climate crisis, said this statement shows that Democrats in Congress are supportive of climate accountability efforts including the lawsuits.

“There is a growing drumbeat in Congress to protect access to the courts for the communities seeking justice against the companies that created and lied about the climate crisis,” Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, said in a news release. “Today’s select committee report is the latest example of House members taking a strong stance against liability relief for polluters, ensuring that communities who have suffered because of the fossil fuel industry’s climate deception and destruction are able to have their rightful day in court. Just like Big Tobacco and Big Pharma, it’s only right that Big Oil is held accountable for the harm it knew its products caused to the public.”  

According to polling conducted last year by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 57 percent of Americans support making fossil fuel companies pay for a portion of damages to local communities stemming from climate change, which is caused by burning fossil fuels.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has also voiced support for holding fossil fuel companies liable for alleged deception.

“[I] will take action against fossil fuel companies and other polluters who put profit over people and … conceal information regarding potential environmental and health risks,” Biden said in response to a question on climate accountability from Vox. And during a televised debate earlier this year, the former Vice President said that fossil fuel companies should be sued, “just like we did the drug companies, just like we did with the tobacco companies.”

Statements like this one from the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, and this latest oppostion to letting fossil fuel companies off the hook from lawsuits in the House Democrats’ new climate plan, come at a time when the Trump administration and Republicans seem intent on bailing out the fossil fuel industry and, in a number of states, criminalizing fossil fuel protests.

As climate journalist Amy Westervelt recently reported, the fossil fuel industry and their allies are looking to “outlaw climate accountability” by pushing back on both protests and climate liability lawsuits.

But Democrats seem unfazed by these tactics, with Speaker Pelosi acknowledging at a press conference Tuesday that climate action has turned into a fight. “I wish it weren’t a fight, I wish it were just a coming together,” Pelosi said. “But it will be a fight as long as it needs to be.”

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