Last July, the normally warm and humid but still pleasant New England summer was interrupted by a series of unusually strong storms. Flash floods breached stream banks and washed away roads, inundating several towns and villages. Vermont and upstate New York in particular suffered immense damage. As communities tried to recover from the ravages, lawmakers in these states and several others wondered why taxpayers should have to cover the cost rebuilding after climate disasters when the fossil fuel industry is to blame.
Vermont is now joining Maryland, Massachusetts and New York in a multi-state effort to hold Big Oil accountable for the Costly damage caused by climate change.. Bills pending in all four states require oil companies to pay states millions for such impacts through financing, as described in the Vermont proposalenergy efficiency retrofits, water utility improvements, solar microgrids and stormwater drainage, just to name a few resiliency programs.
“There will be no shortage of climate spending that would be entirely appropriate for this fund to pay for,” said Ben Edgerly-Walsh, climate and energy director at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “These are not going to be avoidable expenses at the end of the day because of the way the climate crisis is unfolding.”
A 2023 survey showed that more than 60 percent of voters national support making polluters pay for the consequences of their actions. However, if these bills become law, they will surely face a long road of legal battles before being implemented. The American Petroleum Institute, which represents about 600 fossil fuel companies, did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, these efforts have several precedents. The most obvious is the 1998 agreement that forced Big Tobacco to provide $206 billion over 25 years to fund state public health budgets. Another example is the federal Superfund legislation enacted in 1980 following a series of toxic spills that brought national attention to hazardous waste landfills. After intense advocacy by environmental organizations and frontline communities, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, which forced those responsible for these disasters to clean them up or pay the government to clean them up. did.
Vermont and other states hope to replicate that model, said state Treasurer Mike Pieciak. The Climate Superfund Cost Recovery Program “would basically be an assessment” of the largest oil companies, he said.
Democratic Senators Chris Van Holland of Maryland and Bernie Sanders of Vermont attempted to introduce something like CERCLA for climate change as part of the federal Build Back Better Act. That didn’t work, so the states took over. In Vermont, the campaign began just before Record June floods. Walsh believes the timing helped garner political support for the effort. The bill is supported by a supermajority in the state Senate and a majority in the House. It will soon be sent to the committee for further consideration and could be sent to the governor in April or May.
A 2021 report estimated that the cost of flood damage to homes, public infrastructure and businesses in parts of Vermont could cost the state 5.2 billion dollars during this century. An analysis by the Vermont Disaster Atlas showed that the Green Mountain State ranks fifth per capita in climate spending.
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The small state, home to just over 645,000 people, has thrown stones against the leviathans of the oil industry. Is suing ExxonMobil under its consumer protection law, alleging that the company, which has understood for decades Burning fossil fuels causes climate change.deliberately misled the state’s consumers about the risks of its products.
Communities in other states have also explored ways to hold fossil fuels responsible for damages, sometimes much more directly. Public health researchers in Kentucky deaths linked in horrific 2022 state floods – which killed more than 40 people – to excessive open-pit mining that leveled mountaintops and destroyed streams. Beverly May, a retired project director for the University of Kentucky Department of Public Health and Epidemiology, attempted to send these results to the federal Office of Surface Mining; she never received a response. May also pointed to early attempts by anti-strip mining campaigners to ensure taxes paid by coal companies go into a trust fund to ensure cleaning and remediation They continue long after companies leave. Those efforts failed due to lack of political will.
“You might as well have opened the window and yelled, ‘Hey, nony, nony,’ for all the help we got,” May said with a sigh. “In cities across southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky, governments are collapsing because there is no money they can spend.”
Legislation of the kind being pushed by Vermont and others won’t repair all the damage caused by climate change or stop pollution alone, but such laws could provide remediation funds for communities that don’t have much money to go around. Pat Parentau, professor emeritus of climate policy at Vermont Law and Graduate School, served on the New England Regional Superfund board when that groundbreaking legislation was implemented. Now as his home state attempts to pass climate legislation based on it, he sees reasons for optimism and instructive lessons.
“It is one more pressure point to accelerate the transition that is underway,” Parentau said.
But enforcing such measures won’t be easy, even if the bill passes. Larger states could fight for themselves; Vermont is using a no-fault scheme, meaning the state would not have to prove negligence to force companies to pay into the Superfund Climate Cost Recovery Program. Any company dedicated to the oil business could be considered responsible. Liability is strict: Companies at every step of the process, from drilling and production to distribution and transportation of fossil fuels, would have to pay, although priority would be given to companies at the extraction end. Parentau noted that this could be a weakness of the bill, making it difficult to implement. And while Superfund created a model for assessing liability by convening a meeting of all parties involved, that task can be more confusing when addressing carbon emissions.
“Once you get over it, you’re in for a long slog,” Parentau said. “I question whether they have the legal resources to take on the ExxonMobils of the world.”
Ideally, something like this would become federal law, but Parentau says that’s doubtful at this point, since the main piece of climate legislation is “mostly carrots.”
It’s hard to hold massive multinational corporations accountable to vulnerable communities, and it’s hard to get money to the right places once it arrives. The Big Tobacco deal was supposed to bring a public health windfall to cash-strapped counties, but in reality, much of the funding went to diverted to other priorities, such as road construction, and served more as glue to hold local budgets together than as a source of income for health programs. Meanwhile, Parentau said, communities spent 10 years litigating the Superfund program, and despite progress, large numbers of sites remain to be cleaned up even decades later. Carbon pollution may be even more elusive: since it is atmospheric, it diffuses through the air and does not concentrate anywhere.
Walsh, however, believes the potential battles ahead are worth it; They set an example. “It’s a fight worth having because the stakes are so high,” he said.