September 2, 2020

Hoboken becomes first NJ city to sue Big Oil companies, American Petroleum Institute for climate change damages

Decades-long campaign of misinformation has directly contributed to effects of climate change in Hoboken, City seeks relief for costs associated with climate adaptation efforts

Hoboken Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla today announced that the City of Hoboken has filed a lawsuit in Hudson County against Exxon Mobil, other Big Oil companies, and the American Petroleum Institute for a decades-long campaign of misinformation related to climate change and its devastating impact on Hoboken. According to the lawsuit, Big Oil companies have caused substantial harm to the public in Hoboken and New Jersey by actively lying about the detrimental effects of their products when in fact their own research indicated otherwise, all in order to generate multibillion dollar profits by producing, marketing, and selling vast quantities of fossil fuels. Big Oil engaged in a continuous practice of misleading the public about climate change and their role in it, directly resulting in adverse impacts in Hoboken including rising sea levels that jeopardize the long-term health of the City.

“As a coastal community, Hoboken has directly felt the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels and more frequent storms,” said Mayor Bhalla. “At the same time we’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars adapting to the realities of climate change, Big Oil companies have engaged in a decades long campaign of misinformation that has contributed to global warming which has disproportionately impacted our residents. We cannot stand idly by and allow Big Oil to continue profiting at the expense of Hoboken residents. It’s time these companies pay their fair share and be held accountable for their actions.”

Hoboken joins at least 19 other cities, states and counties across the country, and the first in New Jersey to allege that Big Oil companies have engaged in repeated deception over a span of decades that has resulted in adverse impacts of climate change. The litigation comes at no expense to the City of Hoboken or Hoboken taxpayers. Legal fees associated with the lawsuit are funded, in part, by the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and, in part, through a contingency arrangement.

Hoboken has suffered from the detrimental effects of climate change

The lawsuit asserts that Hoboken has been disproportionally affected by the climate change caused by fossil fuel companies’ products and that Big Oil companies invested millions of dollars in a campaign to deceive the public. Rising global temperatures as a result of climate change have contributed to nearly a foot of sea level rise in and around Hoboken, a rate higher than almost all other regions in the world. The devastating impact of Superstorm Sandy in Hoboken was due in part to higher sea elevation and storm intensification because of climate change, with a 14-foot storm surge causing over $100 million in damage. Hoboken residents witnessed firsthand the detrimental effects of climate change yet again this summer, with two extremely heavy rainstorms, including a Tropical Storm, occurring in just two weeks, even though each had less than 10% chance of occurring in a given year.

As a result of climate change and rising sea levels, the City of Hoboken and its partners have invested continued funding for climate change adaptation, including $140 million over the past decade for a variety of resiliency efforts including flood pumps, resiliency parks, underground flood storage as a part of the Rebuild by Design comprehensive water management strategy. The lawsuit seeks to recover funds to pay for the costs that the City is undertaking, and will undertake as a result of the substantial impacts of climate change, which has been exacerbated by Big Oil.

Big Oil has purposefully spread misinformation on climate change  

While Big Oil companies were purposefully casting doubt on the validity of climate change and global warming to protect billion dollar profits, they were at the same time updating their own facilities to adapt to rising sea levels. In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute, along with executives from Exxon, Chevron and other fossil fuel companies initiated a “Global Science Communications Team” that concluded “Victory will Be Achieved When” doubts about climate science become mainstream. At nearly the same time, Shell spent billions of dollars accounting for rising sea levels due to global warming to raise the height of its drilling rigs. Big Oil has consistently known about the impacts of their products and climate change, yet engaged in deceptive practices that have led to outsized impacts on coastal communities like Hoboken.

Compensating Hoboken for costs associated with climate change adaptation

Hoboken’s lawsuit seeks to recover the cumulative cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate the City for past, current and future costs associated with climate change adaptation, remediation, and economic losses. The City alleges violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, as well as claims for negligence and common law remedies to prevent and abate hazards to public health, safety, welfare and the environment.

Climate change is a racial justice issue

Like in other cities, the effects of climate change caused by Big Oil companies have had greater impacts on low-income communities and communities of color. In Hoboken, the Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) suffered millions of dollars of damage due to Superstorm Sandy, some impacts of which are still felt today. The HHA lies in the western end of the City, which due to the topography of Hoboken, has higher levels of flooding during storms compared to the rest of the City. The City Council will sponsor a resolution at the next City Council meeting, supported by Mayor Bhalla, pledging that the first priority for any potential recovery will be to address resiliency efforts at the HHA.

“Make no mistake about it, climate change is a racial justice issue in Hoboken and across cities everywhere,”said Mayor Bhalla. “Rising sea levels and more frequent storms have an outsized impact on low-income communities and communities of color, and we must do everything we can to address this trend. As a result, in partnership with the City Council, we are pledging that the first priority for any funds that may be recovered by the lawsuit will be to benefit residents in the HHA, to help sustain our most vulnerable communities for generations to come.”

“I remember almost like it was yesterday, the destruction that was caused by Superstorm Sandy and how the Hoboken Housing Authority, its buildings, and most importantly its residents took the brunt of that destruction,” said LaTrenda Ross, former co-chair of the Hoboken Rebuild by Design Community Advisory Group, and former resident of the Hoboken Housing Authority. “Our communities should not have to worry about rain storms impacting their daily lives, let alone a Superstorm that threatens the future of our City. I fully support Mayor Bhalla’s decision to take on the fossil fuel companies because for too long the residents of Hoboken and the Hoboken Housing Authority have been on the wrong end of the abuse of our climate.

“Hoboken is a national leader on climate change and now they are taking on Big Oil and Fossil Fuel companies for climate damages. The city is using the principle of polluter pay. The fossil fuel industry has been deliberately misleading the public and withholding information on their impact on climate change and the risks involved. It is critical that Hoboken is stepping up, especially now when hurricanes, wildfires, and more are getting worse and severe impacts are becoming more expensive. Hoboken has spent hundreds of millions of dollars from Superstorm Sandy and creating resiliency and mitigation programs. Now they are going to court to hold those responsible for those damages,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Hoboken has created their own climate action plan, opposed an unneeded fossil fuel power plant, moved forward on electric vehicles, bike sharing programs, is a leader in green jobs and renewable energy and have now set a precedent for New Jersey to go after Big Oil. We thank Mayor Bhalla and the Hoboken City Council for their leadership. They are the first city in New Jersey that will join 19 other cities, states and counties in these lawsuits and we hope others will join too.”

“Fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobil, Shell, and BP have earned billions and billions of dollars selling a product they knew was causing climate change and harm to human health, leading us to this critical tipping point in human history. They researched and documented the science, actively smothered it and spent millions to promote misinformation about the role fossil fuels play in the climate crisis,” said Ed Potosnak, Executive Director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “We applaud Hoboken Mayor, Ravi Bhalla, and his team because these major polluting corporations need to be held responsible for the damage they have caused, which has particularly impacted the most vulnerable, low-income communities of color. The time is now for action against these fossil fuel companies so they can help pay our doctors bills and foot the cost of rebuilding to protect us from rising sea levels and the flooding and damage from more frequent and intense storms.”

"It's exciting to see the city of Hoboken take the climate fight to the doorstep of the fossil fuel corporations who have caused the crisis we find ourselves in,”said Michael Watson of The Climate Mobilization, Hoboken Chapter. “These companies knew for decades that they were making our world uninhabitable, and they lied to the American people about it. Hurricane Sandy devastated our city, and it's time that those responsible reimbursed Hoboken for the destruction they caused."

For a summary of City of Hoboken v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, et. Al, click here.

For the full complaint, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters