National News

To Fight Climate Change, New York City Takes on Oil Companies

Posted January 10, 2018 11:09 p.m. EST
Updated January 10, 2018 11:12 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Seeking to position himself as a national leader against climate change, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday announced a two-pronged attack against the fossil-fuel industry, including a vow that city pension funds would divest about $5 billion from companies involved in the fossil fuel business.

The mayor also announced a lawsuit against five major oil companies, seeking to collect billions of dollars in damages to pay for city efforts to cope with the effects of climate change.

“This city is standing up and saying, ‘We’re going to take our own actions to protect our own people,'” the mayor said, wearing a green necktie and sitting in front of large green sign that said “NYC: Leading the Fight Against Climate Change.” He added, “We’re not waiting.”

But in fact the city will have to wait, potentially for many years.

The mayor acknowledged that the lawsuit, which he compared to successful lawsuits against large tobacco companies, could take years to reach a resolution.

The city lawsuit says that the oil companies — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell — were aware for years that burning fossil fuels caused climate change but hid the conclusions of their own scientists. It says that the city has spent billions of dollars and will spend billions more to deal with the consequences of climate change, such as the effects of Hurricane Sandy, and it seeks to hold the companies responsible for those costs.

Similar lawsuits were filed last year against oil companies by San Francisco and Oakland; the California counties of Marin and San Mateo and the city of Imperial Beach; and the city of Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions,” Exxon Mobil said in an emailed statement. “Lawsuits of this kind — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that.”

A spokesman for Chevron responded in similar terms, saying the lawsuit would “do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change.”

Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, had a different view, calling the lawsuit a “classic example of impact litigation that’s designed to upend the existing order.” He said that lawsuits targeting the tobacco industry were once considered long shots but ended up being successful.

The city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, who sat next to de Blasio at the news conference, tempered his enthusiasm on the pension divestments, saying, “We’re setting a formal goal to divest from fossil fuels.” He added that any decision would be complex, take time and must be viewed through a “lens of sound fiscal stewardship.” He said the goal was to complete the divestment within five years.

Trustees for the city’s five pension funds would need to approve any divestment, weighing its effect on the funds’ performance. A resolution submitted on Wednesday to the boards of the five funds called for them to “initiate a process for determining a prudent divestment” strategy in keeping with the fiduciary duty to responsibly manage the funds. It called for the boards to hire a consultant to study the issue and its impact on risk and return.

De Blasio said that a majority of the trustees on two of the funds — one for teachers and another for many employees not including police officers or firefighters — were ready to support divestment.

Some participants in the news conference noted that under Mayor de Blasio, the city’s pension funds had previously divested from companies involved in the coal industry, as well as from private prison companies. But those investments represented a total of about $60 million, far less than the estimated $5 billion invested in fossil fuel companies. The total amount managed by the funds is about $189 billion.

The divestment announcement comes less than a month after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised to cease the state’s investments in entities “with significant fossil-fuel activities,” and created an advisory committee to “develop a decarbonization road map.”

The news conference Wednesday was held at a Lower Manhattan community center that de Blasio said had been flooded during Hurricane Sandy. It was attended by activists wearing buttons calling for divestment, who applauded frequently as de Blasio, Stringer and other officials spoke.

De Blasio has made other grandiose pledges to combat climate change. Last September he announced that the city would force the owners of large buildings, including apartment houses and office buildings, to retrofit them to save energy. But what he ultimately revealed was a vague plan that needed to be fleshed out and then enacted by the City Council, which quickly distanced itself from the announcement. Since then, no legislation has been introduced.

De Blasio is also opposed to creating a congestion pricing scheme that would charge vehicles entering parts of Manhattan, in order to reduce driving and finance public transit. Advocates say such a scheme would also help fight climate change, but de Blasio says that it would be unfair to poorer drivers and drivers from outside Manhattan.

He has also been criticized for frequently driving to Brooklyn from Gracie Mansion in Manhattan to go to the gym, and for the little he has done to improve the energy efficiency of two homes he owns in Brooklyn.