Washington county files climate lawsuit to protect Pacific’s billion-dollar shellfish industry

King County – which includes Seattle – has joined the growing movement of climate liability lawsuits.

King County -- which includes Seattle -- has filed a climate lawsuit against major fossil fuel companies. (CREDIT: George Rose/Getty Images)
King County -- which includes Seattle -- has filed a climate lawsuit against major fossil fuel companies. (CREDIT: George Rose/Getty Images)

King County in Washington state — which includes Seattle and Bellevue — filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against five of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies, seeking monetary damages from consequences related to climate change.

There are now a dozen such lawsuits pending across the country, from coastal cities and counties in California and New York to inland cities and counties in Colorado.

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King County’s lawsuit specifically names five fossil fuel companies — BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and ConocoPhillips — and seeks an undisclosed amount of compensation for damages and costs related to climate adaptation.

“Global warming is here and it is harming King County now as King County is already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate: warming temperatures, acidifying marine waters, rising seas, increasing flooding risk, decreasing mountain snowpack, and less water in the summer,” the complaint, filed in King County Superior Court, reads. “This egregious state of affairs is no accident. Rather, it is an unlawful public nuisance of the first order.”

Like other climate liability lawsuits, the King County suit argues that fossil fuel companies have knowingly created a public nuisance through their business of fossil fuel extraction. The lawsuit is based on a growing body of climate attribution science that can, with increasing sophistication, draw connections between greenhouse gas emissions — and, by extension, the actions of particular fossil fuel companies — and climate consequences like ocean acidification and sea level rise.

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The wave of climate liability lawsuits are largely modeled on successful public nuisance litigation that helped earn a historic settlement with the tobacco industry in the 1990s. As with the tobacco lawsuits, these climate liability lawsuits argue that fossil fuel companies knowingly created public nuisance — and public harms — while actively funding misinformation campaigns to confuse the public on the risks of climate change.

In King County, ocean acidification is a particularly pressing risk. The Washington shellfish industry accounted for 2,710 jobs in 2010, generating $77.1 million in labor income for the state. But as carbon dioxide seeps into the ocean, making the waters more acidic, shellfish like oysters have difficulty forming their shells in the early stages of life — which could mean huge losses for the industry.

But the complaint doesn’t just cite ocean acidification; it also points to sea level rise, decreasing winter snowpack, more frequent heat waves, and more frequent flooding as impacts that will require serious financial investment.

“The science is undisputable: climate change is impacting our region today, and it will only cause greater havoc and hardships in the future,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a press statement. “The companies that profited the most from fossil fuels should help bear the costs of managing these disasters.”

In response to the growing wave of climate liability lawsuits, fossil fuel companies and industry groups have already begun fighting back in both court and in the court of public opinion.

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In January, Exxon filed a motion in federal court to depose city officials involved in several of the California lawsuits, arguing that the “abusive law enforcement tactics and litigation” are a violation of the company’s First Amendment Rights. And industry groups have launched campaigns to paint the lawsuits as politically motivated in an attempt to undercut their influence on other cities and municipalities.

Still, for every city and county that has already filed a lawsuit, there are more considering similar action. Lawmakers in Los Angeles have introduced a motion to the city council aimed at encouraging the city to file a lawsuit against fossil fuel companies, and at least one political candidate in Florida has called for cities in the state to do something similar.