NJ on sidelines as city goes after big oil

Hoboken joins other cities, states in legal fight saying oil industry at fault in climate change
Hoboken endured major flooding during Superstorm Sandy. The city’s lawsuit targets major oil companies for their role in actions it says led to adverse impacts of climate change.

New Jersey has a history of holding polluters responsible for the damage they cause to the environment, a policy it dubbed the “polluter pays principle.” It has been applied to cases where drinking water has been impaired, wetlands destroyed, and spills have contaminated rivers.

But just last month, Hoboken became the first city in New Jersey to join at least 19 other cities, counties and states across the country in alleging that major oil companies have engaged in repeated deception over a span of decades, hiding crucial details about their role in actions that resulted in adverse impacts of climate change.

“As a coastal community, Hoboken has directly felt the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels and more frequent storms,’’ said Hoboken Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla. “At the same time, we’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars adapting to the realities of climate change.’’

The allegations against the fossil fuel companies, and the American Petroleum Institute, have a familiar ring — that they were misleading the public over decades about the impacts of climate change, according to Hoboken’s lawsuit.

‘50 years of deceiving the public’

“Instead of addressing these threats, defendants have spent the last 50 years deceiving the public about their central role in causing climate change in order to grease the wheels of their ever expanding production and use of fossil fuels,’’ the suit said.

The lawsuits include ones filed in Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island — all states with lengthy coastlines that make them particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Not yet, however, by the state of New Jersey, where sunny-day flooding, a nuisance problem caused by climate change, is already common along Jersey Shore communities.

The American Petroleum Institute, in a statement, discounted the claims raised in the lawsuits. “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,” said Paul G. Afonso, senior vice president and chief legal officer.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, praised Hoboken for stepping up to address climate change problems.

“The city is using the principle of polluter pay,’’ he said. “The fossil fuel industry has been deliberately misleading the public and withholding information on the impact of climate change and the risks involved.’’

Trying to spur New Jersey to file a lawsuit

Some lawmakers and advocates are trying to spur New Jersey to file a lawsuit. In July, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved a resolution (SR-57), sponsored by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).

The resolution calls on the governor and attorney general to take legal action to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the harms caused by their products, used exactly as intended at the same time the companies downplayed the risks of climate change.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s office declined comment. “We don’t comment on pending litigation,’’ said Jerrel Harvey, a spokesman for Murphy.

Murphy’s administration, in a reversal of Gov. Chris Christie’s eight-year term, has filed dozens of natural resource suits against polluters, seeking to recover natural resource damages to wetlands, marshes and water supplies.

Sen. Bob Smith, a Middlesex Democrat who also is chairman of the Senate committee, said he thinks suing the oil companies is the right way to go, adding it is very much similar to what happened with the tobacco industry and its denial of the harmful effects of smoking.

“You can see it all around you. You see wildfires coming from the West Coast to the East. You watch ice melting off the world’s biggest glaciers,’’ he said. “There is so much bad happening that it is unbelievable.’’

Lawmakers have yet to act

But it has not convinced lawmakers to move legislation that aims to fix the problem. Beyond Weinberg’s bill, identical versions awaiting action in the Assembly have yet to be voted on.

Smith and others also are sponsoring bills that have been introduced with no action.

They include bills to divest from state pension funds into a couple hundred of the largest fossil fuel companies (S-330) and a constitutional amendment (SCR-18) to prohibit the construction of new fossil fuel plants in New Jersey — both measures sponsored by Smith.

Industry advocates say the lawsuits are the wrong place to resolve issues relating to climate change. “I don’t think the courts are in a very good position to fix the problem,’’ said Scott Segal, an attorney with Bracewell LLP, a company that represents energy companies. “The courts are not set up to grapple with it.’’

Instead he argued the issue should be settled by lawmakers, preferably Congress. “Some problems need a legislative solution,’’ Segal said.

Jim Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council, cautioned the state should move slowly — given the huge assets the sector has in the state. “It’s a strategic hub,’’ he said, mentioning shipping, refinery and terminal capacity, and now pipeline capacity, all of which help bring prices down to consumers.

But Smith argued the climate bills eventually will pass. “Unfortunately, it needs a crisis,’’ he said. “It is here.’’