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A US small-town mayor sued the oil industry. Then Exxon went after him

A US small-town mayor sued the oil industry. Then Exxon went after him

10/16/2021 1:01:00 PM

A US small-town mayor sued the oil industry. Then Exxon went after him

The mayor of Imperial Beach, California , says big oil wants him to drop the lawsuit demanding the industry pay for the climate crisis

A Texas district judge approved the request to depose Dedina, but then a court of appeals overturned the decision last year. The state supreme court is considering whether to take up the case.The target on Dedina is part of a wider pattern of retaliation against those suing Exxon and other oil companies.

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In an unusual move in 2016, Exxon persuaded a Texas judge to order the attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, to travel to Dallas to bedeposed about her motivesfor investigating the company for alleged fraud for suppressing evidence on climate change. The judge also ordered that New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, be “available” in Dallas on the same day in case Exxon wanted to question him about a similar investigation.

Healey accused Exxon of trying to “squash the prerogative of state attorneys general to do their jobs”. The judge reversed the deposition order a month later and Healey filed a lawsuit against the company in 2019, which is still awaiting trial.But similar tactics persuaded the US Virgin Islands attorney general to shut down his investigation of the oil giant.

Patrick Parenteau, a law professor and former director of the Environmental Law Center at Vermont law school, said the attempt to question Dedina and other officials is part of a broader strategy by the oil industry to counter lawsuits with its own litigation.

“These cases are frivolous and vexatious. Intimidation is the goal. Just making it cost a lot and be painful to take on Exxon. They think that if they make the case painful enough, Imperial Beach will quit,” he said.The city’s lawsuit claims it faces a ‘significant and dangerous sea-level rise’.

Photograph: John Francis Peters/The GuardianIf the intent is to kill off the litigation against the oil industry, it’s not working. Officials from other municipalities have called Exxon’s move “repugnant”, “a sham” and “outrageous”, and have vowed to press on with their lawsuits.

Dedina described the action as a “bullying tactic” by the oil industry to avoid accountability.“The only conspiracy is [that] a bunch of suits and fossil-fuel companies decided to pollute the earth and make climate change worse, and then lie about it,” he said. “They make more money than our entire city has in a year.”

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The city’s lawsuit claims it faces a “significant and dangerous sea-level rise” through the rest of this century that threatens its existence. Imperial Beachcommissioned an analysisof its vulnerability to rising sea levels which concluded that nearly 700 homes and businesses were threatened at a cost of more than $100m. It said that flooding will hit about 40% of the city’s roads, including some that will be under water for long periods. Two elementary schools will have to be moved. The city’s beach, regarded as one of the best sites for surfing on the California coast, is being eroded by about a foot a year.

Imperial Beach sits at the southern end of San Diego bay. Under one worst-case scenario, the bay could merge with the Tijuana River estuary to the south and permanently submerge much of the city’s housing and roads.A view of the Tijuana River estuary.

Photograph: John Francis Peters/The GuardianThe city has received some help with creating natural climate barriers. The Fish and Wildlife Service restored 400 acres of wetland next to the city as a national wildlife refuge which also acts as a barrier to flooding, and is expected to restore other wetlands together with the Port of San Diego. A grant is paying for improved equipment to warn of floods.

But that still leaves the huge costs of building new schools and drainage systems, and adapting other infrastructure. Dedina said that without the oil companies stumping up, it won’t happen.“People ask, how did you go against the world’s largest fossil fuel companies? Isn’t that scary? No. What’s scary is coastal flooding and the idea that whole cities would be under water,” said the mayor.

“Honestly, bring it on. I can’t wait to make our case. I can’t wait to take the fight to them because we have nothing to lose.”This story is published as part of, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story Read more: The Guardian »

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