A Canadian energy company is named in three large lawsuits that attempt to link damages from climate change to industry's alleged attempts to hinder action to address it.
In the latest of a growing number of such lawsuits around the world, Calgary-based Encana is one of 20 energy majors and their subsidiaries facing claims from three California communities. They allege the companies have deliberately sown misinformation and doubt on climate change and are at least partially responsible for related damages such as shoreline erosion.
"Defendants ... have known for nearly a half century that unrestricted production and use of their fossil fuel products create greenhouse gas pollution that warms the planet and changes our climate," says the lawsuit filed by the City of Imperial Beach.
"They have nevertheless engaged in a co-ordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats, discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence, and persistently create doubt in the minds of customers, consumers, regulators, the media, journalists, teachers, and the public about the reality and consequences of the impacts of their fossil fuel pollution."
Encana (TSX:ECA) has not responded to requests for comment.
The lawsuits, filed Monday in California, draw on legal precedents used against tobacco companies, which reached a U.S. settlement of $368.5 billion in 1998.
"The plaintiffs have an uphill battle, but these are plausible claims," said Michael Burger, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.
Burger said that, like tobacco companies, the energy industry knew its business was creating problems. Reports quoting documents from Exxon's archives suggest its management was told by its own scientists about greenhouse gases and climate change as early as 1977.
Instead of addressing the problem, the lawsuits allege, industry deployed think tanks, lobbyists and other means to obscure the science and resist regulation — much like the tobacco industry.
"You have a similar history of corporate malfeasance," said Burger.
But the climate lawsuits will have a much tougher time linking specific damages to industry actions, he said.
"To get from pulling it out of the ground all the way through the chain of manufacture, marketing, combustion — and through the climate change reality and then to sea-level rise causing specific impacts in these places — is a much longer chain of causation."
Similar lawsuits have been thrown out.
Vic Sher, the lawyer handling the litigation, said his lawsuits avoid conflicts with federal law that disallowed earlier attempts.
Fresh reports have made industry attempts to block change much clearer, he said. As well, research now allows scientists to make direct links between greenhouse gases, sea-level rise and individual producers.
"That causal connection we can now tie to particular companies."
The claim alleges the defendants are collectively behind about 20 per cent of total CO2 emissions between 1965 and 2015.
"It's an enormous volume and a substantial contribution to the problem," Sher said.
Kate Sears, supervisor for Marin County just north of San Francisco, said her communities are already suffering.
Previously rare flooding tides now occur about 15 times a year, she said. The only roads in and out for some coastal communities have been submerged.
A county assessment concluded in April that within 15 years, tidal flooding could threaten at least $15.5 billion in public and private assets, from homes to schools to wetlands.
"Climate change is not a theoretical problem for us," Sears said. "It's very, very real."
Martin Olszynski, a University of Calgary law professor who has published research on similarities between climate change and tobacco liability, said the cases are highly relevant to Canada as different court systems try to deal with the issue.
"Everyone's watching to see what different courts are doing, especially countries that share that common law tradition," he said. "There's a cumulative effect — you start to see more and more of these."
A report in March for the United Nations counted 654 cases in 24 countries that dealt with the science of climate change and mitigation efforts.
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960