As executive director of the environmental group WildCoast, Serge Dedina for years has worked to reduce carbon emissions and protect the world’s oceans and ecosystems from the effects of climate change.
In his other role as mayor of Imperial Beach, California, Mr. Dedina is lending the power of his government to a legal assault on oil companies, with municipalities on the West Coast and New York City arguing that Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and others need to be held accountable for their role in fueling global warming.
At least eight California cities, along with New York, have filed lawsuits against the oil industry.
Critics say Mr. Dedina is perhaps the best example of deep-rooted conflicts of interest and political motivations beneath the wave of lawsuits against the fossil fuels sector, and demonstrates how the environmental movement has co-opted some of the country’s richest and most influential local governments into doing their work for them.
With an anti-oil agenda now a top part of Democratic Party orthodoxy, the climate lawsuits have allowed political leaders to push their environmental policy goals with the full legal and monetary backing of their city and county governments.
The National Association of Manufacturers, which opposes the lawsuits, has taken specific aim at Mr. Dedina’s role.
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“The questions this lawsuit and arrangement raise are plentiful. Is this what it appears to be — a politically motivated lawsuit to do WildCoast’s bidding?” the organization said recently. “What about the principles of sound governance or doing what’s best for Imperial Beach? Why is Mayor Dedina putting WildCoast’s political agenda above the common good? Does Mayor Dedina know when his day job ends and his service in city hall begins?”
Mr. Dedina denies any conflict of interest. In an email to The Washington Times, he said it was the Imperial Beach City Council that made the final decision to sue and that it’s inaccurate to suggest he is the sole driving force behind the legal action.
Still, he fully supports the lawsuit and doesn’t reject the notion that the actions of his city government align with those of the environmental group he leads.
“It is not a publicity stunt to stand up for the residents and businesses of Imperial Beach. Our taxpayers are on the hook for millions of dollars in planning and adaptation costs from sea level rise knowingly caused by fossil fuel companies,” he said. “That’s not right, and the city’s lawsuit was filed to put those costs where they belong — on the companies who are responsible for the damage.”
Oil industry groups have disputed the lawsuits and suggested that, to the extent the nation confronts climate change, there is a collective responsibility throughout society and that blame and legal liability shouldn’t be pushed onto fossil fuel companies alone.
But the strategy of climate change lawsuits, which originated in Imperial Beach and other California municipalities, seems to be spreading nationwide.
New York City in January announced that it would divest city funds from fossil fuel companies and join in the climate lawsuits.
“We’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said two months ago. “As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.”
High-profile former politicians also are getting in on the act.
In a Politico podcast released this weekend, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he plans to take big oil companies to court for “first-degree murder” for “knowingly killing people all over the world.” He made an explicit analogy to the tobacco industry lawsuits.
“I don’t think there’s any difference: If you walk into a room and you know you’re going to kill someone, it’s first-degree murder; I think it’s the same thing with the oil companies,” he said.
“This is no different from the smoking issue,” the Austrian-born bodybuilder-actor said. “The oil companies knew from 1959 on, they did their own study that there would be global warming happening because of fossil fuels, and on top of it that it would be risky for people’s lives, that it would kill.”
Exxon Mobil shot back that such lawsuits “filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life” do little to address environmental challenges.
Analysts, however, say there is another goal. While the lawsuits represent an uphill battle at best for Imperial Beach, New York and other cities — especially since federal courts have rejected similar lawsuits — they do give progressives a major platform to paint the oil sector in a negative light.
“The chances of these things making it are slim to none. It’s part of an overall strategy to demonize these companies, demonize these resources, contribute to the narrative that there’s something nefarious about these publicly traded companies that provide tremendous value to society,” said Thomas Pyle, president of the conservative Institute for Energy Research.
Beyond Mr. Dedina, critics have raised a host of other concerns about the lawsuits, their potential effects and the underlying motives of the plaintiffs.
Although it’s unclear how much money could be awarded if cities are successful in their lawsuits or how the payouts over climate change would be calculated, it’s clear that trial lawyers stand to benefit.
San Francisco has an agreement with the Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP law firm that will give the firm “23.5 percent of the net monetary recovery” from the lawsuits.
Other municipalities have similar agreements with their representation.
While taxpayers could get stuck with the legal fees associated with the lawsuits, consumers also could suffer in the form of energy price spikes if companies are forced into long, expensive court battles.
“At the end, the consumers are the ones who are going to pay because these companies have to defend themselves,” Mr. Pyle said.