NEW YORK ― Officials in New York City on Wednesday announced a lawsuit against five major oil companies over infrastructure damage caused by climate change and plans to divest roughly $5 billion in fossil fuel investments from the city’s five pension funds.
The announcement from Mayor Bill de Blasio came roughly a week after the Democrat was inaugurated for a second term. It marks his strongest action yet to address global warming and its associated sea-level rise, which devastated the city with massive flooding during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
At a press conference Wednesday, de Blasio said that while there may have been climate change deniers in New York City before Sandy, he doubts there were any left afterward. The world, he said, is facing a “painful, horrible reality” and the city will “no longer participate in a system that endangers our very own people.”
“It’s time to do something different in New York City, isn’t it?” he said. “We’re going after those who have profited — and what a horrible, disgusting way to profit.”
The lawsuit against oil giants BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell seeks to recoup billions in climate-related damages the city has already incurred, as well as pay for billions in new infrastructure and resiliency measures to fortify the city and protect its residents moving forward, officials say.
“We’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits,” de Blasio said in a statement ahead of Wednesday’s press conference. “As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”
Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, told The Associated Press that the company believes “climate change is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers, not by the courts.”
The American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for America’s oil and natural gas industry, called de Blasio’s announcement “disgraceful.”
“Today Mayor de Blasio turned his back on millions of first responders, police officers, firefighters and other public employees who depend on their pensions to provide for themselves and their families in retirement,” API New York Executive Director Karen Moreau said in a statement. “Government pension managers have a responsibility by law to seek the greatest return for their investors and pensions that invest in oil and natural gas companies have historically delivered a higher return than other investments. Deliberately hurting pension holders, like the fine men and women who keep our city safe, is a disgraceful way to score cheap political points.”
In addition to the lawsuit, New York City intends to divest the approximately $5 billion the city’s pension funds have invested in over 190 fossil fuel companies. The move comes more than two years after de Blasio announced plans to divest $33 million from coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.
“We know that the future is with big ideas in clean energy, not with big polluters,” Comptroller Scott Stringer said. “We believe that a green economy is a thriving economy, and that we have to be thinking about the next fiscal quarter as well as the next quarter century. That’s what this is all about.”
Stringer added that the city is embarking on one of “the most significant divestment efforts anywhere in the world to date.”
City officials said they hope to inspire other local governments to take similar action.
In 2016, a coalition of attorneys general — called AGs United for Clean Power and led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman — formed to combat the climate crisis. Its formation came after bombshell reports by InsideClimate News and The Los Angeles Times detailing how ExxonMobil executives were aware of the climate risks associated with carbon dioxide emissions but funded research to cover up those risks and block solutions.
A recent investigation by the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law uncovered documents showing that the oil industry, including Humble Oil (now Exxon), was aware of the potential link between fossil fuels and carbon emissions no later than 1957. And Big Oil was “shaping science to shape public opinion” as early as the 1940s, that report found.
In late November, Letitia James, New York City’s public advocate, held a first-of-its-kind public hearing on climate change. Activists, students and voters packed an auditorium at the Borough of Manhattan Community College for hours, recounting stories of asthma exacerbated by air pollution and homes flooded by rising waters.
New York, the birthplace of the nation’s annual climate march, has plenty of its own pollution problems. For example, in Queens, the city’s largest borough, the Ravenswood Generating Station has another two years under city law to keep burning 3,264,000 gallons of fuel oil each year, producing annual emissions equivalent to about 500,000 cars. The city is also of the world’s top garbage producers, and its recycling services lag behind other major metropoles.
Yet buildings account for about 70 percent of the city’s emissions, creating a steep political challenge for a mayor who, to the chagrin of the progressive activists who helped elect him, spent much of his first term wooing real estate developers. In September, de Blasio’s rollout of a new set of mandates to cut emissions from big buildings faced blunt criticism from the New York City Council, which accused the mayor of acting unilaterally and failing to go far enough with the proposed rules.
Still, air pollution hit an all-time low last year after the city tightened heating oil rules.
New York City’s effort to hold industry accountable for the impacts of climate change was applauded by numerous climate advocacy groups. Representatives of some of those organizations spoke Wednesday in New York.
“Today, the mightiest city on our planet takes on its most powerful industry — its richest, most powerful and most irresponsible industry,” said Bill McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org. “Science and economics and morality are on the side of this city, and so it will eventually win.”
This story has been updated with a statement from the American Petroleum Institute.