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The next state to sue Big Oil?
A new bill in Maryland would equip the attorney general to take action against climate fraud.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
As a growing number of communities take action to hold major oil and gas companies accountable for the climate crisis they knowingly caused, one state is emerging as a new epicenter of activity: Maryland.
In January, a climate damages lawsuit that Baltimore, the state’s largest city, filed against BP, Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and other oil majors became the first to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, albeit on a procedural issue. Maryland’s two U.S. Senators — Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin — urged the court in a brief to side with Charm City in its efforts to recover the rising costs of damages those companies knew their products would cause. Another member of the state’s congressional delegation, U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin, chaired the first ever congressional hearing into the oil industry’s decades-long efforts to deceive the public about climate change, and last year organized 60 House members in opposition to an attempt to sneak legal immunity for the industry into COVID-19 relief. And just last month, the city of Annapolis became the latest community, and first state capital, to take oil and gas companies to court for climate fraud and damages.
But that’s not all! This week, the Maryland House of Delegates — and possibly even the state’s attorney general — signaled their desire to get in on the action.
Delegate Jen Terrasa, one of five Maryland legislators to recently join Leaders for Climate Accountability, has introduced a bill that would equip the state’s attorney general with the resources necessary to investigate and prosecute companies that have contributed to the climate crisis through fraud or deception.
On Wednesday, HB1078 was heard for the first time in the state’s House Health and Government Operations committee, and it received supportive testimony from lawmakers, advocates, and representatives from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office and the City of Baltimore.
Terrasa reminded the committee that the attorney general’s office has a long history of holding bad actors accountable for the damages they imposed on the people of Maryland, including manufacturers of opioids, asbestos, lead, and tobacco — and that this industry shouldn’t be held to a separate standard.
“[These companies] violated state law, and now our communities are paying the price,” she said. “The fossil fuel industry must not be allowed to escape legal liability and pass off the extraordinary costs of its business with impunity.”
Hannibal Kemerer, Director of Legislative Affairs for Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office, urged the committee to approve the bill, explaining that it would give Frosh’s office the authority and the resources necessary to take action against private entities that knowingly committed fraud or spread disinformation.
“Fossil fuel companies have been marketing their products despite knowing the earth is warming and that fossil fuels are an outsized reason for that warming,” Kemerer said. “They’ve been doing so while casting doubt on climate science, and they should be held accountable.”
Maryland is facing an onslaught of climate impacts — and the costs of adaptation and recovery can be debilitating.
Across the entire state, Maryland taxpayers can expect to spend $27.4 billion on coastal defenses against rising seas by 2040 — and that’s just one expense of many to address rising seas and regular flooding, extreme temperatures, severe weather events, and the devastation of coastal and baywater ecosystems upon which so many Maryland economies depend.
“Without the ability to recover the costs from the fossil fuel industry itself that knew and lied about this crisis, we are going to have to either raise taxes or cut other services,” said Jamie DeMarco, Federal and Maryland Policy Director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “These are very straightforward cases. All these cases say is your product had a deadly defect. You lied for decades about the deadly defect of that product, and now you need to pay for the damage that deadly defect caused.”
And as his testimony on Wednesday reminded us, it’s not just big cities like Baltimore, where the likelihood of extreme floods has already increased by 20% due to sea level rise; or Annapolis, where residents and businesses have suffered the greatest increase in yearly nuisance flooding of any city in the nation.
DeMarco gave the example of Ellicott City. In 2016, after the first once in a 1,000 year rain event forced Ellicott’s residents to escape flooded buildings, ripped apart storefronts, and sent cars “careening down main street,” the city went to lengths to repair the damage; yet just two years later, a second once in a thousand year rain event wreaked havoc on the same residents and the work they had done to rebuild.
The bill would allow the attorney general to protect all Maryland residents from climate deception and damages. That includes smaller and unincorporated communities, like Ellicott City, and the low-income communities and communities of color hit hardest by climate impacts.
“Many of the communities that need these funds the most are in municipalities without the resources to bring their own case,” DeMarco said. “We need a state-wide case to make sure every Marylander has access to the funds to cover the costs incurred by the climate crisis.”
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