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Annapolis sues 26 oil and gas companies for their role in contributing to climate change

A view of Annapolis looking up Ego Alley, City Dock, State House, United States Naval Academy (USNA) and the Severn River. The City of Annapolis is suing 26 oil and gas companies for what it calls the costs and consequences of climate change, including increased flooding at City Dock.
A view of Annapolis looking up Ego Alley, City Dock, State House, United States Naval Academy (USNA) and the Severn River. The City of Annapolis is suing 26 oil and gas companies for what it calls the costs and consequences of climate change, including increased flooding at City Dock. (Jeffrey F. bill)

The City of Annapolis is suing 26 oil and gas companies for what it calls the costs and consequences of climate change.

The city filed the lawsuit Monday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. It names some of the biggest fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell. Similar lawsuits have begun to pop up across the country. Annapolis is the 25th state or local government to file such a lawsuit, the city said.

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The city will argue the companies violated the Maryland Consumer Protection Act and five other actions, including public and private nuisance, negligence, failure to warn and trespass, according to a statement released by Mayor Gavin Buckley’s office Tuesday morning.

“The fossil fuel industry knew for the past 50 years that their industry was pushing the environment to a tipping point where combating climate change would become progressively difficult,” Buckley said during a news conference to discuss the lawsuit. “The companies worked to deceive people of the danger, hiding their knowledge and engaging in an intentional campaign to mislead the public about the science, proving the growing danger posed by fossil fuels.”

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The city has retained Sher Edling LLP as outside counsel on a sliding contingency fee that ranges from 16% to 25% based on how much the city is awarded if they are successful. The percentage drops the larger the payout is, said City Attorney Mike Lyles. There will be no out-of-pocket costs to city taxpayers, Lyles said. However, there could be “soft costs” of taking city officials away from their primary duties focus on the suit.

Lawsuits of this nature typically take five to eight years to complete, he said. The longer time frame would last well beyond Buckley’s second term if he wins reelection this fall. Lyles said he is confident the timeline will be closer to five years because of “an aggressive approach.”

“We think the Maryland courts will get us there,” he said.

Anne Arundel County is also considering similar litigation against oil and gas companies, County Executive Steuart Pittman said Tuesday during his weekly media briefing. Pittman pointed to the county’s 130 miles of coastline, parts of which are also at risk to rising sea levels. The county will retain Sher Edling as well in their lawsuit.

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“Same law firm, similar kind of case, but it’s a separate case,” he said.

Sher Edling, the California-based law firm, represents states, cities, public agencies and businesses in environmental lawsuits, according to its website. In 2018, Sher Edling represented the City of Baltimore in a similar lawsuit against oil and gas companies for their role in spurring climate change.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Baltimore case last month, though the justices were not ruling on the case itself, but rather a procedural issue on whether the case should be heard in federal or state court. Lawyers representing Baltimore argued the litigation should remain in state court where it was originally filed because Baltimore was specifically harmed. Lawyers for the energy companies said the case belongs in federal court because it involves national fossil fuel emissions.

While other states or municipalities are years ahead of the city in the legal process, those litigation efforts will help iron out procedural issues that hopefully will make the city’s case proceed more smoothly, said Jacqueline Guild, deputy city manager for resilience and sustainability.

Guild, a former environmental attorney, said the city’s lawsuit originated after she was approached by a local environmental group about various lawsuits across the country. Guild and Lyles interviewed several firms that handle climate change litigation and landed on Sher Edling, she said.

“This is exactly why we brought Jackie on so that she can elevate things,” Buckley said. “So that we have this kind of lens on every decision that we make.”

Guild was named to her current position in November after serving as environmental policy director for the city since May 2018. She is responsible for coordinating the city’s resiliency efforts across all city departments.

Fossil fuel companies have known for decades about the catastrophic impact of climate change “and that only a narrow window existed to take action before the consequences would be irreversible,” the lawsuit states.

The suit also noted a litany of negative consequences as a result of the defendants’ conduct, including inundation and loss of private, public and historic property, lost tax revenue, increased costs of maintaining public infrastructure and additional costs for planning and preparing for resiliency as a result of climate change.

The City Council was informed of the lawsuit in a closed session following Monday’s council meeting. The session had been postponed from last Thursday due to an ice storm.

After initially feeling enthusiastic about the news, those feelings diminished Tuesday morning, Alderwoman Elly Tierney said, when constituents flooded her inbox with questions about the litigation. She had few answers.

“Residents are smart, and they pick up on it, and they say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re spending tax dollars for two months working on this,’” said Tierney, D-Ward 1. “You have to put aside other stuff. So, it does involve the council. ... And we’re in the dark about it. It just doesn’t sit well.”

In response, Buckley said filing lawsuits is an executive action that doesn’t involve the council because there are no costs associated with it.

“It wasn’t necessary to go to the legislators, but we want the legislators’ input. And, of course, we’re all in this together,” he said.

Climate change and rising sea levels are a direct threat to the Annapolis Historic District. Full of centuries-old buildings and historic properties, the area generates millions in revenue each year that could be impacted, the city said. Tierney represents the area.

Annapolis has already started to experience the impacts of the climate crisis. In 2019, flooding occurred 65 times City Dock. That number is expected to increase drastically in the coming decades.

In December, the city announced it had reached a predevelopment agreement with a group of companies to begin work on redeveloping City Dock to address flooding and rising sea levels. That project includes a seawall and water pumps to protect downtown. Hillman Garage, which also experiences regular flooding, will be rebuilt.

The project is expected to cost north of $56 million, making it the largest infrastructure project in city history, and take about four years to complete. This would mean any payout from the lawsuit likely couldn’t be used to pay for the project.

“I think the timeline won’t work out for that, but I certainly would like to be compensated for it, because I can tell you, I’d love to be rebuilding City Dock and not raising and 6 feet, but we don’t have a choice,” Buckley said.

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The city estimates by 2040 it will have to spend $45 million, or more than $1,150 per capita, on four miles of seawalls to mitigate the impacts of sea-level rise and storm surge.

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“Mitigating the impacts of climate change is expensive. We would not have to spend the kind of money we are forced to spend but for the actions of the fossil fuel industry,” Buckley said. “This lawsuit shifts the costs back to where they belong, on those whose knowledge, deception and pursuit of profits brought these dangers to our shores.”

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