British Columbia

B.C. cities join global movement asking oil companies for climate change costs

Staff and contractors in Victoria have been crunching the numbers on climate change costs for the coastal city and it's not looking good, the mayor says.

Oil and gas companies should start shouldering some of the costs of climate change, says Victoria's mayor

Victoria was one of the first municipalities in British Columbia to pen a letter to oil and gas companies last year asking them to chip in to cover growing bills in proportion to their emissions. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Staff and contractors in Victoria have been crunching the numbers on climate change costs for the coastal city and it's not looking good, the mayor says.

Lisa Helps says based on a report commissioned by the regional government in 2015, storm surges combined with a one-metre rise in sea level — which is projected by the year 2100 — could result in business disruption losses of $415,557 per day.

Victoria was one of the first municipalities in British Columbia to pen a letter to oil and gas companies last year asking them to chip in to cover growing bills in proportion to their emissions.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is actively looking into ways her city can recoup costs associated to climate change from oil and gas companies. (Liz McArthur/CBC)

It is joining local governments around the world in seeking some relief.

"We're actively working through our climate leadership plan to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but in the interim there are real costs to taxpayers," Helps said in an interview.

"It's pretty fair to say 'You caused this, you need to help us mitigate the cost,' even as we all — energy companies and cities — work toward a renewable energy future."

'Increasing momentum'

West Coast Environmental Law, which has driven the campaign in B.C., says 16 local councils have voted to write letters to fossil fuel companies. The most recent was West Vancouver, which voted last week.

"It's been increasing in momentum," said Andrew Gage, the organization's staff lawyer.

It's not about handing the entire bill to fossil fuel producers, but seeking a reasonable contribution relative to a company's pollution, he said.

"No one is saying the individual consumer bears no responsibility. It's a question of what the relative responsibility is," he said.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers declined comment, saying that since the letters are sent directly to companies, it considers the issue "company specific."

Whistler incident

The campaign has largely flown under the radar until recently when the resort town of Whistler in B.C. drew the ire of Alberta for sending one of the letters to Calgary-based oilsands giant Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.

Last weekend, Alberta's economic development and trade minister, Deron Bilous, took a dig at Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton while speaking at a pro-oil rally in Grand Prairie.

"The people of Whistler need to tell the truth: that they are using Alberta gas for their cars, for their petrochemical products, and they're using our oil and it's time to smarten up," he told the rally.

Crompton apologized in a Facebook video last week.

Worldwide movement 

Governments in other parts of the world are trying different tactics.

Several cities in the United States, including New York and San Francisco, have tried unsuccessfully to sue major oil companies over climate change.

The Canadian government has committed, as a signatory to the Paris agreement on climate change, to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 . (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

The Shell Group said in a statement its position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades.

"We strongly support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future, while also extending the economic and social benefits of energy access to everyone," it said.

"We believe co-operation is required across all segments of society, not lawsuits that impede the collaboration needed for meaningful change. Individual communities can be powerful drivers of positive change in the energy transition, but filing lawsuits against the producers of energy that drives the world's economy, raises living standards and improves lives, is not the answer," it said.

In the Philippines, the Commission on Human Rights has an ongoing investigation into a complaint filed against 47 coal, oil, gas and cement companies.

Greenpeace says it's the world's first human rights investigation into corporate responsibility for climate change and was launched in response to complaints from typhoon survivors, advocates and community groups.

While there's no monetary element to the investigation, Greenpeace said it could set a precedent for other legal cases relating to climate change liability.

In Ontario, the legislature has twice debated a private member's bill intended to clarify the rules around suing fossil fuel companies. The bill was killed by the Progressive Conservative government under Premier Doug Ford.

Tool kit for local governments in the works

Greenpeace Canada said it's working on a tool kit for local governments considering launching a legal challenge to fossil fuel companies similar to those in the United States.

"We'll be encouraging cities across the country, and I'll personally ask the City of Toronto, to launch this kind of a case," said Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada.

Stewart pointed to a city staff report that found between 2000 and 2012, Toronto experienced three one-in-100-year rainstorms and it said the city would continue to experience extreme weather events.

"This wave of climate lawsuits, which have just picked up speed in the last couple of years, is not going to go away," Stewart said.

Only one response

Whether the letter writing campaign will be effective beyond raising awareness has yet to be seen.

Since Victoria sent 19 letters to the largest fossil fuel companies in the world, none of which Helps said were Canadian, it has received only one response.

Shell Canada responded on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell in a letter that did not commit to any payment but highlighted the companies support for transitioning to a low carbon economy.

Shell Canada responded on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell to the letter but did not commit to any payment. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

It also highlighted its Quest project, launched in Edmonton in 2015, as an example, saying it reduces carbon dioxide emissions from oil sands operations by more than one million tonnes per year.

"These are a few examples of the actions we are taking today, recognizing that the global energy transition will span decades, moving at different paces and producing different outcomes in different countries depending on local factors," says the letter signed by president Michael Crothers.

"We welcome efforts toward constructive, collaborative action, as we collectively attempt to address this complex global challenge."

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