Annapolis, Battling Sea Level Rise, Sues 26 Oil Companies Officials say the companies knew about the dangers of burning fossil fuels, but deceived consumers.
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Annapolis, Battling Sea Level Rise, Sues 26 Oil Companies

Downtown Annapolis, flooding in 2017, due to a hurricane off the Atlantic coast. alliecat1881/Flickr hide caption

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The city of Annapolis, Md., one of the oldest state capitals in the nation, is sinking into the quickly-rising Chesapeake Bay. Last year, the city experienced 65 days of flooding. By mid-century, it's expected to see 360 days of flooding a year.

The blame for this, city leaders say, falls in part on big oil. That's why Annapolis has filed suit against more than two dozen companies that city officials say are responsible for rising sea levels — and for the tens of millions of dollars climate change is costing Annapolis taxpayers.

"This lawsuit is not trying to solve climate change. It is designed to help Annapolis survive climate change," said Mayor Gavin Buckley, during a press conference.

"The fossil fuel industry knew for the past 50 years that their industry was pushing the environment to a tipping point, where combating climate change would become progressively difficult. The companies worked to deceive people of the danger, hiding their knowledge and engaging in an intentional campaign to mislead the public about the science," Buckley said.

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The suit names companies that have long been household names, including Chevron, Shell, BP, and Exxon, as well as the American Petroleum Institute. More than 20 other cities and states have filed similar lawsuits. Annapolis is the second city in Maryland to do so, after Baltimore sued in 2018. Baltimore's case made it to the Supreme Court in January, where justices heard narrow jurisdictional arguments over whether the case should be tried in state or federal court. The election of President Joe Biden may make these cases more likely to succeed: President Trump's department of justice supported the oil companies, a stance Biden is unlikely to embrace.

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine sued four oil companies last summer, alleging they violated consumer protection laws in the city.

Annapolis is particularly vulnerable to climate change — specifically rising seas. The city has experienced a 925% increase in nuisance flooding days over the past 50 years — the largest increase of any U.S. city, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We're at risk of losing some of our most important historical buildings and sites in Annapolis," says Jacqueline Guild, deputy city manager for resilience and sustainability. "We have the largest collection of 18th century brick buildings anywhere in the United States, and many of those are very close to the water. So we're being faced with some really hard choices."

The city is undertaking numerous projects to protect itself, including building four miles of flood walls and raising the historic City Dock by 9 ft. The total price of these projects is $100 million. "And that's just the tip of the melting iceberg, if you will," Guild says.

Annapolis officials say the litigation could take 5 to 8 years. The city is being represented by the firm Sher Edling on a contingency fee basis, meaning the firm will only be paid if the suit is successful.

The climate lawsuits are backed by environmental groups, including the the Center for Climate Integrity. Executive director Richard Wiles says the cases are similar to those brought against tobacco and opioid companies. "You have an industry that made a product that they knew 50 years ago was going to cause major environmental damage all around the world," Wiles says. "They ran probably the most consequential disinformation campaign in the history of mankind to undermine the science of climate change and to delay action."

The suit argues that the companies violated Maryland's consumer protection act, and that they created public and private nuisances. The suit also alleges the defendants are guilty of trespassing.

"The City of Annapolis did not give permission for Fossil Fuel Defendants, or any of them, to cause floodwaters, extreme precipitation, saltwater, and other materials to enter its property as a result of the use of Fossil Fuel Defendants' fossil fuel products," reads the lawsuit.

The companies engaged in "greenwashing" campaigns for decades, according to the suit, attempting to portray fossil fuels as environmentally friendly. "These campaigns misleadingly portray Defendants as part of the solution to climate change and distract from the fact that Defendants' fossil fuel products are the primary driver of global warming," the suit reads.

In a statement, American Petroleum Institute chief legal officer Paul Afonso touted the fossil fuel industry's record of producing cheap fuel as well as its recent emissions reductions. However, he did not directly address the allegations that the industry is to blame for climate change, and that it misled the public about climate science.

"The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint. Any suggestion to the contrary is false," Afonso said in an email to DCist.

Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the lawsuits — if successful — could have an impact beyond funding climate adaptation in the cities filing suit.

"When you start tugging at the pocketbooks and the money that these oil companies make, they are going to start seeing their profits go down," Caldas says. The companies she says, would be wise to start rethinking their business models, and investing in renewable energy. "A lot of these oil companies are already realizing that oil and coal are not going to be here for a very long time."

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