The organizers behind Sue Big Oil, a made-in-BC lawsuit, are looking to expand after Gibsons City Council unanimously agreed to use at least $1 per resident to help fund the fight against global fossil fuel companies.
Sue Big Oil’s premise is simple: gather money from municipalities around BC, and use it to pay a team of lawyers to bring a class-action lawsuit to cover the costs of climate change. Gibsons is a significant victory for the climate organizing campaign, after Vancouver’s city council voted to rescind a similar commitment earlier this spring.
“We did have a municipal election that shifted the scene here. We had, pretty much, success in 2022, and now we have completely no support,” said Vancouver-based Manvi Bhalla, co-founder of youth-led climate justice non-profit Shake Up The Establishment that supports Sue Big Oil. “That was very disappointing, and I know morale was quite low after that decision… That was kind of a slap in the face.”
Vancouver had previously voted to fund a Sue Big Oil lawsuit in July 2022, to the tune of $1 per resident. But that was stripped out of the city budget, as was a motion by Green Coun. Adriane Carr to keep a cent per person. The city’s Climate Emergency Action Plan also did not receive more money in the budget and remains around $240 million short.
Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer for West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL) who is also part of the secretariat of the Sue Big Oil campaign, said the move ignored how much of the city’s budget is spent dealing with the ramifications of climate change. Disasters like the 2022 heat dome—which researchers have definitively linked to climate change—cost the province tens of billions of dollars, with significant proportions born by individual municipalities.
“Road maintenance costs, stormwater infrastructure upgrades, dealing with the damage to the Sea Wall, having cooling stations—these are all costs that are included in the [Vancouver] budget,” he told the Straight. “A lot of these costs can be actually traced back to climate change.”
Community groups in other municipalities, including Victoria, Powell River, Nanaimo, Whistler and Burnaby, are hoping to follow Gibsons’ lead.
Kate McMahon, an organizer in Burnaby, told the Straight that politicians were interested, but wary.
“While everyone is interested and supportive of the idea, so far councillors are pretty hesitant to actually put the motion forward,” McMahon noted in an email.
The core premise of the lawsuit is that the fossil fuel industry knowingly caused climate change, and covered it up for decades—and yet the costs are being entirely borne by taxpayers, all while companies continue to earn huge profits.
“We’re comfortable with our taxpayers paying 100 per cent of the tens of millions—of billions—of dollars of costs that we’re facing over the coming years, and that’s a bizarrely fiscally irresponsible position for any elected official,” Gage said.
Even funds from provincial or federal governments are still sourced from taxpayers. The lawsuit isn’t about punishing fossil fuel companies, but rather about “trying to get them to just do what all of us certainly have to do, which is to pay a share of the cost of climate change.”
Bhalla said the “polluters should pay principle is kind of the bedrock of the lawsuit.” The idea that the entities responsible for environmental damage should be held financially liable is well-established, though its current usage is limited. BC currently applies it to companies who spill hazardous chemicals.
But there’s also some misunderstanding about how the proposed lawsuit would work. Gage said a claim would be brought under nuisance law, where courts recognize that a person who is brought harm by someone else’s actions can claim compensation. While different, the underlying principle is similar to class-action lawsuits against tobacco and asbestos. WCEL, as organizers, would not be the legal firm bringing the case.
“If you sell a product that you know will cause harm—not just it might, it will, inevitably when used in the way it’s intended to be used, is going to harm other people—you can be held liable for that,” he said.
Around 20 local government-led lawsuits against fossil fuel companies are ongoing in the US, and the Biden administration has sided with plaintiffs in Colorado who are suing Suncor. Friends of the Earth Netherlands have also successfully sued Shell for its obligation to reduce emissions.
ABC Coun. Lenny Zhou, when voting against the lawsuit fund, suggested that Coun. Carr could start a crowdfunding campaign, and promised to personally contribute $500. But the lawsuit needs municipal governments as plaintiffs. If a lawsuit went ahead, and won, that Vancouver was not a part of, then the city may not be eligible for any of those funds to help cover the spiralling costs of climate change resiliency, emissions reduction, or infrastructure repairs.
Bhalla said that climate activists in Vancouver continue to care about the Sue Big Oil campaign, and “there’s a lot of work that can be done” before the next budget vote or election, if the lawsuit is more of a long game.
“City councillors, like any political leadership, it is their job to listen to you and you as an individual have the right to tell them [what you care about],” she said. “Communicating with city councillors is going to [be] helpful for other climate adaptation and emissions mitigation initiatives, where we will need city constituents to reach out to councillors.”
April 5, 5.18pm: This story was updated to reflect the fact it is unclear whether Vancouver would be elligible for compensation if a class action lawsuit were brought that they were not a part of, rather than being definitely excluded.