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Charleston sues 'Big Oil' for flooding in SC Lowcountry caused by global warming

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The city of Charleston filed a lawsuit Wednesday in state court against two dozen major oil and pipeline companies, alleging their products and the spread of misinformation about fossil fuels have caused climate change and repetitive, disastrous flooding in the city.

The lawsuit demands those companies — some of the biggest names in the industry — pay for the cost of trying to keep the city dry. But it doesn't specify a dollar amount. 

It was the second assault on the oil industry in two days. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced a moratorium on drilling off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. 

Charleston, South Carolina’s largest city, is the first in the South to file such a lawsuit, joining a growing list of West Coast and Northeastern cities and states.

The civil lawsuit was filed in the 9th Judicial Circuit Court on Meeting Street.

Most of the companies being sued either did not return calls, denied responsibility or said the problem is larger than just one industry.

Mayor John Tecklenburg held an afternoon news conference at The Battery announcing the lawsuit, standing with construction equipment behind him and crews working on the ongoing elevation of the low wall — the city's first project combating sea level rise. 

Councilman Keith Waring, who chairs the city's Public Works Committee, stood behind Tecklenburg as he made the announcement. Half an hour after the press conference started, the water in the harbor feet away reached peak high tide. 

Tecklenburg said the city has estimated the cost of keeping up with rising sea levels at $2 billion. 

pc-021018-ne-floodvalves (copy) (copy)

Waves break over the Low Battery wall during Tropical Storm Irma in 2017. File/Matthew Fortner/Staff

"It's not fair for the citizens of Charleston to bear the burden of that cost," Tecklenburg said. "If we don't act now, the future of our city is in jeopardy."

Waring said other members of City Council supported the lawsuit.

"I'm one of 12 but I think we have solidarity," Waring said, adding that each council member hears about drainage problems and the threat of flooding from constituents. 

Councilman Mike Seekings, who represents residents in a flood-prone area of the city, said documents now in the public realm show how the fossil fuel industry researched the effects of carbon emissions years ago.

"They were told there would be negative effects and here we are in 2020 — they predicted it," Seekings said. 

The city seeks a jury trial and wants jurors to determine how much money it should be paid in compensation for the costs of flooding and resulting damage.

“As a direct and proximate consequence of Defendants' wrongful conduct described in this Complaint, the environment in and around Charleston is changing, with devastating adverse impacts on the City and its residents," the lawsuit reads.

The city has hired Sher Edling, a prominent environmental law firm based in San Francisco, as co-counsel. Sher Edling also represents the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Baltimore and New York. On the East coast, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Massachusetts have filed similar lawsuits.

Mount Pleasant attorney Joseph P. Griffith Jr. was hired as a consultant. 

Tecklenburg said the lawsuit comes at "no cost" to the city unless Charleston wins or receives a settlement. 

The city claims the fossil fuel companies have violated the state’s unfair trade practices among other laws. 

Among those named in the lawsuit, some of them listed under several names, are: 

  • Brabham Oil Co., which is based in Bamberg. A phone call seeking comment was not returned. 
  • Colonial Group Facilities, which owns over 125 Enmark gas stations in the Southeast, based in Savannah. A phone call seeking comment was not returned. 
  • Piedmont Petroleum Corp., a retailer based in Greenville that owns about 35 Citgo service stations in South Carolina. A phone call seeking comment was not returned. 
  • Colonial Pipeline Co., which owns and operates the largest fossil fuel pipeline in the country, transporting 100 million gallons of fuel between Texas and New Jersey each day, and owns and operates at least six terminals along the pipeline in South Carolina. A phone call seeking comment was not returned. 
  • Exxon Entities, one of the largest publicly traded international oil and gas companies in the world.
    In an emailed statement, corporate spokesman Casey Norton said lawsuits waste millions of taxpayer dollars and don't "advance meaningful actions" in reducing climate change.
    "The claims are baseless and without merit," Norton said. "We look forward to defending the company in court." 
  • Shell Entities, the multinational oil and gas company headquartered in the Netherlands.
    In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Anna Arata said addressing climate change requires a collaborative approach.
    "We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government, supported by inclusive action from all business sectors, including ours, and from civil society, is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress," Arata said. 
  • Chevron Entities, a multinational energy and chemical company incorporated in Delaware with a global headquarters in San Ramon, Calif. Sean Comey, senior adviser for Chevron's External Affairs, said there "is no merit to the claims" and the company is working to find "real" solutions. 
  • BP Entities, a multinational registered in England and Wales. BP Director of Public Affairs Jason Ryan declined to comment. 
  • Marathon Entities, a multinational energy company incorporated in Delaware with its principal place of business in Findlay, Ohio. Katie Merx, a Marathon spokesperson, said the company does not typically comment on pending litigation. 
  • Murphy Oil Entities, a global oil and natural gas company incorporated in Delaware with principal offices in Houston. A phone call seeking comment was not returned. 
  • Hess Corp., a multinational incorporated in Delaware with its executive office in New York. A request for comment was not returned. 
  • ConocoPhillips Entities, a multinational incorporated in Delaware with principal offices in Houston. A phone call seeking comment was not returned. 

Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, said Charleston's lawsuit follows 20 other communities that have filed similar legal action. 

"With today’s filing, Big Oil is facing climate lawsuits on both coasts, in the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, the Rocky Mountains, and even Hawaii," Wiles said in an email. "The public is ready to hold this corrupt industry accountable for causing and lying about climate change, and officials across the country are stepping up to take action."

In most cases around the country where cities and towns sue oil companies directly, the companies have tried to get the cases moved to federal court, said Blan Holman, attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. SELC briefly consulted with Charleston months ago on the possibility of a suit, but is not involved in Wednesday's filing.

Holman said oil companies may find federal courts more predictable, or be able to effectively derail a state-level claim. But in most cases, the cities and towns fight back and win and the cases are being sent back to state court.

A recent case in Maryland reached the federal 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and was sent back to the state courts. Holman said that could be a good precedent for Charleston, which is in the same federal circuit and which is using the same firm that argued the Maryland case.

"It's a sound case. It's what ought to happen to bring accountability to these companies," Holman said. "Taxpayers are going to be on the hook one way or another, either to pay for the damage that's done or the protection that's needed, and the people that caused the problem need to contribute."

The theory that fossil fuel emissions would trap heat near the Earth was first put forth in 1895 by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, and today is at the core of modern climate science.

There is broad agreement among scientists that the release of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases have insulated the Earth and made average temperatures on land and sea rise. In the United States, three-quarters of the total greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 came from using fuels like coal and oil, according to the Energy Information Administration.

For many around the globe, the effects have already arrived. Fires burning now across the American West have been fueled by record-breaking temperatures, and a hyperactive hurricane season this year in the Atlantic is being fed by warmer oceans.

But most importantly for Charleston, a warming globe means seas are rising, through a combination of melting polar ice and water that expands when it's hotter, taking up more volume.

While scientists agree that climate change is here and that humans are driving it, there's less certainty on how bad it will get. A series of recent studies has suggested that Arctic ice is melting faster than predicted, potentially leading to far higher rises in sea level in the coming decades.

There were a record 89 events of at least minor tidal flooding last year, and the city is planning for a 2- to 3-foot rise in sea level in the next 50 years.

To combat that, the Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a $1.75 billion flood wall around the peninsula and the city of Charleston is currently elevating the Low Battery wall 3 feet. 

Chloe Johnson contributed to this report.

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Reach Mikaela Porter at 843-937-5906. Follow her on Twitter @mikaelareporter. 

Mikaela Porter joined The Post and Courier in April 2019 and writes about the city of Charleston. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

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