District of Squamish council voted 5-2 to join a class action lawsuit against global fossil fuel companies. West Coast Environmental Law is the driving force behind the lawsuit.
Mayor Armand Hurford and Councillors, John French, Jenna Stoner, Lauren Greenlaw supported the motion at a Committee of the Whole meeting on October 24. It was opposed by Councillors Eric Andersen and Andrew Hamilton. With the 5-2 vote, council decided to support the lawsuit and put aside $1 for each resident in the 2025 budget for this purpose.
Gibsons and Mount Royal are two other municipalities that have joined the ‘Sue Big Oil’ campaign. The campaign calls upon local governments to band together to sue global fossil fuel companies to recover a share of the climate-related costs that local governments face. It’s the local governments that will decide which companies to sue and which lawyers to retain, Andrew Gage, the lawyer for West Coast Environmental Law, told council at the meeting.
“It’s a feature of Canadian law. You can sue global companies for the harm that they cause in Canada,” he said. “We’re not limited to just Canadian companies. So, you know, certainly, Chevron, Exxon, Shell, you know, these large international players would all be obvious target targets to include in the lawsuit. Chevron was responsible for about a little more than 3% of human cause greenhouse gas emissions similar amounts from Exxon and Chevron and other large companies. So, those are the types of companies we’re talking about. It certainly could be a decision made by the local governments to go more broadly and include a larger range. But the biggest bang for the buck is going after those that have contributed the most.”
In 2021, District also launched an online resource to tackle climate change issues.
What councillors said
Coun. Jenna Stoner said it’s an important motion that shows climate leadership. “I think we have a strong policy that suggests that we are trying to do everything that we can to both mitigate and adapt to the changing climate, and I think that this is in line with that work, both within our community Climate Action plan having previously declared a climate emergency,” she said. “The option to put $1 per resident in the 2025 budget gives us the flexibility to have the conversation of where we’re going to fund that from whether it’s from the reserve, or from taxation.”
Coun. Eric Andersen said there was a need for a nuanced approach to the matter and supported a motion to discuss the matter at a future strategic plannign session but it wasn’t succesful. “I see a complex picture. Our local carbon engineering venture is now owned by a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. It’s also a complex picture around the world. We see people in the prairies asking for a class action against companies for locking farmers around the world for the use of fossil fuel-based fertilizer products. We also see in Europe law firms very analogous to West Coast environmental law asking or leading a charge on suing big wind.”
Coun. Chris Pettingill said he sees letters from the regional districts that talk about $20 to $30 million in costs related to fossil fuels and local governments don’t have that kind of money. “The fossil companies who have been lying and misinforming about the impacts of their products have been raking in massive profits. The fossil fuel companies haven’t been paying, and that’s the problem. And that’s why a class action lawsuit is justified,” Pettingill said.
Coun. Greenlaw said the council needs bold action and leadership on this issue. “This is a very low-risk option, and I like the idea of putting the funding into the 2025 budget that would give us some time to source funding. So, it’s not an immediate pinch on taxpayers,” she said. “Right now, our own integrated flood hazard management plan models indicate that sea level rise of one meter and flooding events could result in damages exceeding $450 million, and nearly 60% of our residents could be displaced. And that is just flooding. We’re not talking about fires, we’re not talking about heat domes, we’re not talking about any of that. This is a massive cost, and I think we need as fast action.”
Mayor Armand Hurford said he is looking forward to the legal opinion on this issue but he said he would support the motion. “I am supportive of this direction in general, although I look forward to seeing that the legal opinion and hopefully it supports this. It’s a bit of a bit of a leap of faith. But I do think it’s an important initiative. So, I’ll take that leap,” Hurford said.
Coun. John French also supported the motion, saying he believed it to be thoughtful and a measured approach while noting that $24,000 is a significant amount of tax payers money for this purpose.
Coun. Andrew Hamilton didn’t provide an explanation on why he ultimately opposed the motion, even though he said ‘absolutely’ agreed that corporations who have caused harm to the public should be responsible and held accountable for the harm they have caused the public. He also said that local governments are a ‘key player’ in holding those companies accountable because they would bear the costs associated with climate change mitigation.
The previous council in Vancouver had voted to support the lawsuit but the decision was reversed by Mayor Ken Sim and his new council. Lawyer Andrew Gage said he had spoken to dozens of counselors and mayors, and there are several councils that are seriously considering joining this lawsuit.
“It’s increasingly obvious that a class action lawsuit by BC’s local governments against fossil fuel companies is the fiscally responsible option for communities like Squamish, which are facing massive bills as a direct result of climate change,” said Fiona Koza, Climate Accountability Strategist with West Coast Environmental Law. “These companies knew in the 1950s and 60s that their products would cause climate change, and they chose to aggressively expand while fighting tooth and nail to prevent consumers and governments from moving away from fossil fuels. They must pay their fair share.”
West Coast Environmental Law has shared with the District the process of this lawsuit.