Oregon County Sues Fossil Fuel Companies Over 2021 Heat Dome

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The Oregon county that includes Portland on Thursday filed a lawsuit against several fossil fuel companies and their business partners in an effort to hold them responsible for a deadly heat wave in 2021.

Multnomah County is suing oil and gas companies including Exxon Mobil, Shell and BP, as well as the American Petroleum Institute, Koch Industries and the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

The lawsuit claims that greenhouse gas emissions produced by the companies played a significant role in causing the so-called heat dome, which blanketed the Pacific Northwest in stifling temperatures for several days in June and July 2021. It notes that scientific studies determined that the heat dome would not have occurred without the global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

The county is seeking more than $1.5 billion in damages from the defendants, who also include Peabody Energy, ConocoPhillips and Occidental Petroleum.

“This lawsuit is about accountability and fairness, and I believe the people of Multnomah County deserve both,” said Multnomah County chair Jessica Vega Pederson. “These businesses knew their products were unsafe and harmful, and they lied about it. They have profited massively from their lies and left the rest of us to suffer the consequences and pay for the damages. We say enough is enough.”

Why It Matters: Climate lawsuits are on the rise

This is the latest lawsuit in a growing wave of climate litigation around the world.

This week, a landmark case brought by 16 young people against the state of Montana concluded. In that suit, the plaintiffs argued that Montana violated their rights under the state constitution to a clean and healthful environment through its support of the fossil fuel industry.

States and cities around the country have sued fossil fuel companies in recent years, alleging that they deceived the public about the dangers of climate change, and that extreme weather made worse by their emissions has harmed people and property. Those cases — including ones brought by the attorneys general in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — continue to wind their way through the courts and the first could go to trial as early as this year.

In April, the Supreme Court ruled that a group of climate cases brought by cities and municipalities should remain in state court, where they are expected to have a better chance of winning damage awards, rather than federal court, where fossil fuel companies were expected to have the upper hand.

The Oregon case is among the first complaints seeking damages related to a specific weather event, and the first related to a heat dome. Last year, a group of 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico sued a group of fossil fuel companies over damages from a pair of hurricanes in 2017.

Background: The 2021 heat dome was deadly

In the last days of June 2021, searing heat enveloped the Pacific Northwest.

In Seattle, famous for its rainy winters and relatively cool summers, temperatures reached a record 108 degrees Fahrenheit. At the Portland International Airport, the thermostat hit 115 degrees.

In Multnomah County, the consequences were severe. Temperatures reached a high of 116 degrees Fahrenheit, shattering records and leading to the deaths of 69 people and extensive property damage.

A New York Times analysis found that during the heat wave, about 600 more people died in Oregon and Washington than would have been typical.

What’s Next: More heat, more lawsuits

Soaring temperatures and climate litigation are both here to stay.

Average global temperatures have already jumped by 1.2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels because of the burning of fossil fuels, with some parts of the world heating more, and the last eight years were the hottest ever recorded. Right now, a heat dome has descended on Texas, Oklahoma and Mexico, pushing the heat index above 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

And with dangerous extreme weather on the rise, more states and cities are looking for someone to hold responsible. New climate lawsuits are being filed almost every week.

The oil and gas companies named as defendants in the Oregon case are all but certain to try to get the case dismissed. But as the youth in Montana showed this week, it is possible to bring climate cases to trial.

David Gelles is a correspondent on the Climate desk, covering the intersection of public policy and the private sector. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter. @dgelles

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