Vancouver City Council rejects funding for lawsuit against oil firms

Mar 1 2023, 9:22 pm

For the second year in a row, Vancouver City Council deliberated a proposal to allocate City of Vancouver funding towards a class action lawsuit against oil companies, in an effort to recover climate change-related costs incurred by governments.

In July 2022, the previous City Council approved a member motion by Green Councillor Adriane Carr to set aside up to nearly $700,000 for the “Sue Big Oil” campaign as urged by environmental activist group West Coast Environmental Law. This would be equivalent to $1 per resident living within the city’s boundaries.

But it was not included in City staff’s proposed 2023 operating budget, nor was it added back in as an expenditure on Tuesday when City Council amended and approved this year’s operating budget.

Carr attempted to provide support for the lawsuit by moving an amendment to “hold in reserve” a decreased amount of $6,622 — equivalent to one penny per resident — for the class action lawsuit. The comparatively symbolic amount would come from the municipal government’s budget for urban planning.

“It supports the idea of climate action because of the result of such a class action lawsuit, if successful, could be the recouping of literally hundreds of millions of dollars to Vancouver and its taxpayers for the amount that we have currently and have spent and will have to spend on climate action,” said Carr, referring to measures to reduce the pace of climate change and mitigate the impacts of harsher weather events.

“I think it is a prudent investment. I think it is a financially smart investment,” added Carr, comparing Sue Big Oil to the successful class action lawsuits against big pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, and that Vancouver’s involvement would “inspire” other cities to also contribute.

City Council rejected Carr’s budget amendment along party lines in an 8-3 vote, with Green councillors Carr and Pete Fry and OneCity Councillor Christine Boyle voting in support.

ABC Councillor Lenny Zhou suggested “not even one dollar or one cent” in City funding should be directed to this campaign, but suggested Carr should lead fundraising with a non-profit organization, and went on record that he would personally donate $500 to the initiative and ask others to donate.

ABC Councillor Lisa Dominato made note that there is currently no class action lawsuit and that it should instead be entertained by provincial and federal governments — not local governments.

“Vancouver is already a leader when it comes to dealing with climate,” said Dominato.

In the public meeting, Mayor Ken Sim shared that he lives a carbon-neutral life by buying carbon offset credits for his family, before listing examples of all the ways oil is used in everyday life.

“Every single car, doesn’t matter if it is gas powered or electric powered, uses petroleum,” as well as “flights, every house built and lived in in this city, medical products, every single restaurant, clothing, dentures, wheels, refrigerators, roofing, water pipes, toilet seats, paint, artificial limbs…. the list goes on and on.”

“While I have the same concerns as the vast majority of us, we truly want to improve the environment, but I can’t support this motion out of principle because it would be hypocritical if we supported a lawsuit and still used all of these products.”

He also suggested that there would also be an “almost 0% chance of winning a lawsuit.”

“That’s just being pragmatic. If you’re fighting a lawsuit, you should have some expectation to win,” added the mayor.

In response to City Council’s decision, West Coast Environment Law expressed disappointment, suggesting that the vote “guarantees” Vancouver residents will foot the bill for hundreds of millions of dollars for climate change impacts.

“In any other context, if a careless corporation destroyed city property so that they could make more profits, the City would sue them,” said Fiona Koza, climate accountability strategist for West Coast Environment Law, in a statement.

“Big Oil has made astronomical profits selling products that they knew would cause the devastating heat waves, storms and flooding that Vancouver is now dealing with. When governments started working to provide sustainable alternatives, this industry engaged in a massive deception campaign similar to what we saw from the tobacco industry, leaving society dependent on their products. Therefore, these costs do not belong only to Vancouver taxpayers. Global oil, gas and coal companies must pay their fair share.”

Last month, during an update on the status of the City’s climate action strategies, City Council approved a direction asking City staff to prepare an overview of how much of the municipality’s operating budget is directly related to climate action, including identifying what the funding is used for, how it benefits the city and residents – specifically the positive impacts on health and air quality – and how to avoid or reduce future costs of coping with climate impacts.

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