Already under investigation by multiple attorneys general in US states, the oil giant faces a new legal challenge related to climate change.
While prosecutors from several US states probe ExxonMobil’s history of climate change policy — which has involved, among other things, guarding some of its facilities against the effects of rising waters — an environmental group now claims the company should have done more to protect an oil storage station in Massachusetts from the threat of higher tides.
On Thursday, the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation filed a lawsuit against the largest oil and gas company in the US for leaking pollutants into the Island End and Mystic Rivers in and around Boston.
The oil storage station in Everett, just north of Boston, has been the subject of scrutiny from regulators and environmentalists for years. According to the lawsuit, the facility routinely discharges pollutants above legal limits in the rivers during storms. In 2006, the station spilled 15,000 gallons of diesel and kerosene into the Mystic River, forcing the company to plead guilty to violating the Clean Water Act and pay a $6.1 million fine.
The Conservation Law Foundation is now trying a new tack, arguing that the company should have known that the rivers’ pollution would be even worse because of climate change.
“We will fight this in court,” Alan Jeffers, an ExxonMobil spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News in an email. “This lawsuit is yet another attempt to use the courts to promote a political agenda.”
He added that the suit is “based on discredited and inaccurate claims by activists” about the company’s four-decade history of climate change research.
“To suggest that we had reached definitive conclusions, decades before the world’s experts and while climate science was in an early stage of development, is not credible,” he said.
Last year, news reports from Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times showed that through the 1980s, Exxon researched the emerging science of man-made climate change by, among other things, modeling increases in global temperatures due to carbon dioxide emissions. Over the next decade, the company quietly took that understanding of higher global temperatures into account when building pipelines over thawing permafrost and offshore platforms over rising seas.
The Conservation Law Foundation argues that ExxonMobil failed to use that foreknowledge to fortify the Everett station against the effects of rising sea levels.
“This is really the first lawsuit in the nation that holds ExxonMobil to account for that deceit,” Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. “It focuses on their longstanding knowledge of climate impact and their disregard of the need to protect the communities surrounding the facilities like Everett that are at risk.”
His group claims that severe storms in the Northeast — which between 1958 and 2012 has seen about a 70% increase in rainfall during heavy precipitation, according to the EPA — already allow hazardous wastewater from the Everett station to spill into the river. And recent maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency put parts of the terminal in a flood zone, the lawsuit claims.
The environmental group is going a step further than the attorneys general of US states, including Massachusetts, have in their investigations of ExxonMobil following last year’s news reports. So far, prosecutors have issued subpoenas requesting documents to build a case without yet making any specific charges.
Campbell said his organization is scouting for other oil and gas facilities at risk of being inundated from storms along the New England coast, where sea levels are rising faster than they are elsewhere, according to research published in February.
“If the suit succeeds it will be an important precedent,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, told BuzzFeed News. “America’s coastlines are dotted with oil and chemical tanks and other facilities that are at risk from rising seas.”