Can Baltimore Take on Big Oil?

Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis explains why the city is suing big oil companies and responds to critics who say the suit doomed to fail

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor, joining you from Baltimore.

There’s little doubt of the consequences of climate change. But with the federal government outright denying the science, some cities are fighting back. One of them is Baltimore. Recently, the city filed a lawsuit against major oil companies for knowingly contributing to the catastrophic consequences of climate change. There’s a vast scientific consensus that we need to drastically lower our use of oil and other fossil fuels to avoid mass species dieoff, sea level rise, and other irreversible effects. This suit targets 26 oil companies, including Shell, Exxon Mobil, and Chevron. And Baltimore is not alone. About a dozen other cities have tried to advance the same legal strategy, and have faced challenges in doing so.

To see why Baltimore thinks we have a chance, I’m joined by the person who will be heading the city’s effort: Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis. Thanks so much for coming in today, sir.

ANDRE DAVIS: Glad to be with you.

DHARNA NOOR: So I want to start by asking you about the motivations for this suit. Where did this idea come from, and what are you hoping to accomplish?

ANDRE DAVIS: The aim here is to seek compensation to the city from the consequences of climate change. The fossil fuel companies have known for decades of the catastrophic consequences of their market approach, their business model. And we don’t believe it’s fair or equitable for the taxpayers of Baltimore City to incur and bear all the costs that will be consequences of their business model. So we’re seeking to seek compensation, and have them bear some of the costs of their businesses.

DHARNA NOOR: Right. And what’s at stake for Baltimore? Talk a little bit about what kinds of effects we can expect that climate change would cause in a city like this.

ANDRE DAVIS: Well, we’re seeing the effects even as we sit here. The dramatic changes in weather patterns, extreme heat. Fortunately, unlike California we don’t face the prospect of ever-growing forest fires, grass fires. But we do have significant effects. The sea rise level is a direct threat to Fells Point one of our greatest assets here in the city. There’s no question that the building of seawalls in coastal cities like Baltimore will begin to take on greater importance. That will incur costs. The effects on our sewer and water infrastructure are likely to be enormous. They already are, as most people know. We’ve entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice. So there are untold costs that we have yet to precisely calculate, but we know that they will be enormous for years to come.

DHARNA NOOR: Now, you filed the suit just a day after New York City’s, at a federal level, was actually rejected. Why? Why did you choose to move forward with a suit anyway?

ANDRE DAVIS: We respectfully believe that the federal courts, and there have been two so far, that have dismissed the claims similar to those brought in our case, that those decisions were incorrectly decided. And it’s a little technical, but the effort that we are about to make is to try to convince the courts that we are really relying on state law, not on federal law, which is the decision that was made in the New York case and in the California case. Those judges viewed the matter as only concerning federal law. And we, as specifically as we can, have tried to make it clear in our pleadings. And we will, when the matter goes before the judges, we want to make it clear that we are not relying on any federal law, statutory or otherwise. We are relying exclusively on Maryland law. And we are hopeful that those arguments will be heard, fully understood, and that they will carry the day.

DHARNA NOOR: Interestingly, you yourself are a former U.S. district judge as well, is that correct?

ANDRE DAVIS: That’s correct. I’m a former state judge and a former federal judge. But now I’m a lawyer representing Baltimore City.

DHARNA NOOR: So when this New York case was dismissed, the federal judge who dismissed it raised the issue that, you know, climate change is really a threat, and there are real consequences of climate change. But he said it’s not really the job of this branch of government to do anything about it. He said that it should be up to the legislative and executive branches of government. What’s your response to that?

ANDRE DAVIS: We read that in the judge’s opinion, and we find it a little puzzling. We’re a little baffled by it. We in this lawsuit are not attacking climate change. We are not seeking some broad-based injunction against the oil companies. We’re not trying to step in and do the work that we acknowledge only the federal government can do on a nationwide- and indeed, nations can do on a worldwide basis.

What we are focused on are the discrete, specific harms from the fossil fuel companies’ business model to Baltimore City, to its infrastructure, to its water, to its air, and to the consequences from the harm that they’ve imposed. So this is very much a damages action. We are seeking compensation in the form of money, not some injunction or broad sweeping effort to do something about climate change.

DHARNA NOOR: In that case Judge Alsup also said that, you know, blame alone cannot be put on these oil companies, because there should be some blame to share amongst people demanding that oil continue to be sold at the rate that it is. What’s your response to that? Is there any responsibility on the part of people who are using these products?

ANDRE DAVIS: Well, that’s why we want to go before a jury. In our tradition in this country, in both state court as it was in federal court, you know, there’s a constitutional right to a jury trial. And under Maryland law, when we have a legal claim, as we do- several legal claims, in this case. Primarily claims for nuisance and misrepresentation. We want to present our evidence to juries for jurors to assess that evidence under the law and make a determination as to what, if any, compensation should be paid to Baltimore City.

DHARNA NOOR: Some are skeptical about the suit. What do you say to those who say that this isn’t maybe the best use of resources, in light of all the other issues facing the city? For instance, in an op-ed in The Sun, one Canton resident said: In a city that has so many other problems, this isn’t a good way to spend taxpayer dollars. In Forbes, David Blackmon wrote that since the campaign to get big oil companies to pay for climate change is off to a rocky start, one would think that, quote: The city of Baltimore may have chosen to take a step back and possibly try a new angle. What’s your response to these kinds of critics and these kinds of naysayers?

ANDRE DAVIS: What I say is that Baltimore City has a very, very fine Department of Law. Unlike private law firms, the lawyers in the Department of Law don’t work by the hour. These are committed, dedicated public servants. No one comes to work as a lawyer for a governmental agency such as my department in order to get rich. These are public-spirited, public-minded people. And we work hard every day, doing the work that the city needs for us to do. We have a co-counsel in the case who will be doing a lot of the work along with us. And we have an arrangement with that co-counsel so that no financial burden on the city is incurred whatsoever in pursuing this lawsuit. We would be doing the work of the city, whether it was this particular lawsuit or some other lawsuits, such as the opioid lawsuit that we are also suing. So as city solicitor, I see a role for cities to play, and in particular Baltimore City to play, to seek compensation on behalf of the city. Not just to defend lawsuits, but to sue those who cause harm to the city. So I think it’s a wise use of the city resources that are devoted to this effort.

DHARNA NOOR: Right. And as you mentioned, climate change is already putting a lot of stress on the city’s infrastructure by creating more extreme weather, more rain, which can lead to more flooding, more extreme heat and extreme cold. Talk a little bit about some other efforts that we can expect from you and from others in the city to sort of promote climate adaptation and mitigation.

ANDRE DAVIS: Well, part of what we hope to achieve, certainly by this lawsuit, is to enhance the education of our citizens about climate change and the consequences of doing so to the extent that, for example, the city gets attention from renewable energy companies that will enhance the ability of our people to seek jobs. Green energy is a very important feature going forward in this country. And so we are hoping, again, through our consciousness of the consequences of climate change and our determination to do something about it that we will attract attention from those who will join with us in mitigating some of these consequences.

The the field is wide open for creative minds to bring to bear solutions and mitigating efforts to bring about some. Some relief from what we know is very, very serious harm to our climate.

DHARNA NOOR: And lastly, talk a little bit about where the funds will go, specifically if the lawsuit is won. What kinds of efforts could this funding help boost?

ANDRE DAVIS: Well you know, I have to say, we just saw in this heavy rain that we suffered through in the last several weeks the consequences to our water and sewer system. And I have no doubt that if we were able to get some compensation through this lawsuit, or otherwise, that significant funds would be devoted to the continuing work to upgrade our sewer infrastructure, our underground conduit system, so that we don’t suffer the kinds of consequences from heavy rains that are likely not only to continue in coming years, but to increase before we begin to see some of the mitigating effects that the efforts at the national level are intended to have.

Beyond that, I think that in any way that we can use additional funds to mitigate, particularly to the voiceless and to those living under the press of limited resources, that’s something that we would certainly expect the mayor and the City Council to direct their attention to.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Thank you so much, Solicitor Davis, for coming in.

ANDRE DAVIS: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for devoting attention to this important case and these important issues.

DHARNA NOOR: And we hope to see you again as this suit ramps up, and we hope to get an update from you.

ANDRE DAVIS: And I will certainly promise you that, and I hope it’s a good news update.

DHARNA NOOR: Thank you so much.

ANDRE DAVIS: Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.