British Columbia

Law firm asks B.C. municipalities to back class action lawsuit against oil companies

West Coast Environmental Law is asking local governments to set aside $1 per person for a community fund to take major fossil fuel companies to court for their contributions to the climate harm suffered in B.C.

West Coast Environmental Law plans to take on fossil fuel companies for their role in climate change

An oil refinery is seen in this June 2019 file photo. A new campaign is calling on people and governments in B.C. to back a plan to take oil companies to court for their role in climate change. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

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Environmental advocates are calling on British Columbians and local governments to back a plan to take oil companies to court for their role in climate change.

West Coast Environmental Law launched a campaign called "Sue Big Oil" on Wednesday ,asking people to sign a declaration encouraging municipalities to offer up $1 per resident to go toward a class action lawsuit against fossil fuel companies. 

In B.C., the costs of climate change have been dire. Just last year, the wildfire that destroyed the Village of Lytton cost insurance companies an estimated $102 million, and major flooding in the province a few months later caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. 

The cost isn't just financial — more than 600 people lost their lives because of extreme heat caused by climate change in 2021.

Reporting from The Guardian in 2020 suggests 20 fossil fuel companies are responsible for one-third of carbon emissions worldwide.

A construction worker looks on as work continues on the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project in Burnaby, B.C., in March 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Lawyer Andrew Gage, who works for West Coast Environmental Law, says suing big oil companies would not only provide communities with much needed funds to help deal with the effects of climate change, but it would also encourage them to change their business practices. 

"Companies that are destroying our communities, destroying our atmosphere, are profitable because they are not bearing their fair share of the costs," Gage told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn. 

"That changes the moment a lawsuit is filed because they have to start notifying their investors, their shareholders of the risks associated with that litigation."

Burnt homes and vehicles in Lytton, B.C., are shown nearly eight months after a wildfire swept through the village. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Several municipalities, such as West Vancouver and Victoria, have already sent letters to fossil fuel companies asking them to pay for climate-related costs. Gage says those letters were largely ignored. 

"The next logical step is to actually say, OK, if you're not going to take responsibility and act in a responsible manner on your own, we're going to actually be going to court," he said. 

Dutch lawsuit successful

An environmental advocacy group in the Netherlands filed a lawsuit against oil giant Shell for its role in the climate crisis in 2020 — and won.

Lawyer Laurie van der Burg, who helped build the case against Shell, says because it was one of the first cases of its kind, she wasn't sure how it would work out.

"Back then, I didn't feel very confident that we had a chance of actually winning the case," she said during the official Sue Big Oil campaign launch on Wednesday. 

Fires burn on a hill in Osoyoos, B.C., on July 22, 2021. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

But she said even if they lost, it would have drawn attention to the role of the fossil fuel company in the climate emergency.

She spent a year on background research before sending a letter to Shell in 2019, asking them to take action and threatening legal action. 

Her team launched a campaign to gather supporters and ended up with more than 17,000 people signing on as part of the lawsuit.

"There was broad backing for this case," van der Burg said.

They officially filed a lawsuit in 2020, and in May 2021, van der Burg and her team won their case. Shell was ordered to reduce its emissions by 45 per cent compared to 2019 by 2030

According to West Coast Environmental Law, 20 local governments in the U.S. are currently suing fossil fuel companies for their contributions to climate change.

Similar lawsuits against tobacco and asbestos, two industries that knowingly sold products that harmed people and lied about it, have been successful.

"There is a solid legal basis for to sue global fossil fuel companies ... for their proportionate share of the costs of those climate impacts," Gage said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Courtney Dickson

Broadcast and Digital Journalist

Courtney Dickson is a journalist working in Vancouver, B.C. Email her at courtney.dickson@cbc.ca with story tips.

With files from The Early Edition

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