By Michael Sol Warren | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Pounding rain and a 14-foot storm surge left about 80% of the city under floodwaters, stranding 20,000 people. The outdated sewer systems became overwhelmed, coating the city’s streets in raw sewage as the waters receded. Conservative estimates claim Sandy caused $100 million in damage to Hoboken alone.
It’s likely, experts say, that Sandy and other recent hurricanes have been made more damaging by climate change, which is driven by decades of burning fossil fuels.
Officials in the Mile Square City blame oil companies for knowingly denying the science of climate change while pushing to increase global fossil fuel use. Now, the city wants the giants of the oil industry to pay up.
Hoboken has filed a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and the American Petroleum Institute for damages inflicted on upon the city through the impacts of climate change. Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla announced on Wednesday the lawsuit, which was filed in Superior Court of Hudson County.
In its 146-page complaint, the city argues that the oil companies and the API, which lobbies for the oil industry, have known about the future impacts of climate change for decades, but actively denied the science of the unfolding environmental catastrophe while prioritizing profits made from global societies reliance on oil and natural gas.
Speaking to NJ Advance Media on Tuesday evening, Bhalla described the lawsuit as a historic moment for Hoboken and environmental justice efforts. If the Hoboken wins, he said, the case could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, which would be spent in making the city more resilient in the face of future climate change. He noted that the lawsuit will not be paid for by Hoboken taxpayers.
“They knew what was going to happen. They knew exactly what was going to happen, but they were driven by corporate greed,” Bhalla said of the oil companies. “They placed their own profits over people, and they placed profits over our own planet Earth. And all we’re trying to do in Hoboken is seek accountability, and make sure that big oil pays their fair share.”
Exxon bluntly denied Hoboken’s claims in a statement to NJ Advance Media.
“Legal proceedings like this waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change. ExxonMobil will continue to invest in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting society’s growing demand for energy,” said Casey Norton, an Exxon spokesman. “The claims are baseless and without merit. We look forward to defending the company in court.”
The API said in a statement firmly denied the allegations brought by Hoboken.
“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,” said Paul Afonso, the API’s chief legal officer. “Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”
Chevron also denied Hoboken’s allegations, and dismissed the lawsuit as a frivolous action.
“There is no merit to the claims. They are not a serious solution to a serious problem,” Chevron spokesman Sean Comey said. “We are working to find real solutions to climate change that are undermined by special-interest-promoted lawsuits designed to punish a few companies in one industry who lawfully deliver affordable, reliable and ever cleaner energy.”
In a statement, Shell said its position on climate change has been “a matter of public record” for decades. The company added that it is committed to reducing its carbon emissions.
“Addressing a challenge as big as climate change requires a truly collaborative, society-wide approach,” Shell spokeswoman Anna Arata said. “We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government, supported by inclusive action from all business sectors, including ours, and from civil society, is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress.”
ConocoPhillips and BP both declined to comment for this story.
Climate change in Hoboken
Hoboken, the fifth-most densely populated city in the nation, has long dealt with chronic flooding. The city is built on an island that was enlarged with artificial fill, mostly on its west side — and most of which is now at or below sea level. That’s why, despite the Hudson River being to the east, the western part of the city tends to fill with water.
Now, as New Jersey is one of the fastest-warming states in the U.S., scientists expect the Garden State will continue to experience more frequent intense rain events in coming decades, according to a report released by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in June.
Hoboken got a taste of that in July, when Tropical Storm Faye moved through the area and was followed less than two weeks later by a thunderstorm that dropped an inch of rain on the city in just eight minutes.
Bhalla said that in the aftermath, city engineers compared the rain of the second storm to thunderstorms experienced in the Amazon rainforest of South America.
“These guys have been around Hoboken for decades,” Bhalla said of the engineers. “They said they’ve never seen anything like it.”
The pain of flooding in Hoboken is not shared equally by city residents. The west side is home to much of the city’s communities of color and low-income population, including those who live in the Hoboken Housing Authority. Bhalla pointed out that HHA residents spent days trapped in their homes without electricity in the wake of Sandy.
“The Hoboken Housing Authority, its buildings, and most importantly its residents took the brunt of that (Sandy’s) destruction,” LaTrenda Ross, former co-chair of the Hoboken Rebuild by Design Community Advisory Group — and former resident of the Hoboken Housing Authority — said in a statement. “Our communities should not have to worry about rain storms impacting their daily lives, let alone a superstorm that threatens the future of our city.”
Paying for the fix
Hoboken is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars from the oil companies, for past and future damages associated with climate change.
The city specifically alleges the oil companies have violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act by engaging in a years-long campaign to deny the validity of climate change science, Bhalla said. The city’s complaint points out that the oil industry was warned about the potential for climate change as early as 1959, by the physicist Edward Teller. The industry’s own experts produced their own research predicting climate change in the 1960s and ’70s, according to Hoboken’s complaint.
“That was a fork in the road,” Bhalla said. “They could have ceased burning fossil fuels, but again, unfortunately they were driven by corporate greed.”
If Hoboken wins the case, Bhalla said the city intends to use money collected from the oil companies to pay for its flood mitigation work. The city has already spent $140 million over the past decades to install new resiliency tools like green infrastructure to soak up flood water, underground storage tanks to catch that water, and new pumps to get rid of it.
That total will grow as Hoboken works to become more resilient to flooding. The city is continuing to build new infrastructure through the Rebuild by Design program, which was awarded $230 million in federal funding.
On Wednesday night, the Hoboken City Council will introduce a resolution supported by Bhalla that pledges any damages won from the case will first go towards resiliency work at the Hoboken Housing Authority.
“We have to act now, so that in 50 years we can remain and build a city that’s resilient and can withstand the impacts of climate change,” Bhalla said.
First in New Jersey
Hoboken is the first city or town in New Jersey to sue oil companies for the costs of climate change. Across the nation, three states, the District of Columbia, 15 municipalities and one trade organization have filed similar lawsuits since 2017, according to the Center for Climate Integrity, which advocates for such actions to be taken. Most of these cases are proceeding in state court despite the oil industries efforts to get them dismissed, CCI said.
More lawsuits against oil companies for climate change impacts could be coming out of New Jersey. State lawmakers are considering a resolution (SR57/AR186) that would urge Gov. Phil Murphy and New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to sue oil companies for climate impacts. Officials in Atlantic County and Union County have expressed their support for that state resolution.
Separately, the boroughs of Sea Bright and Bradley Beach have also passed their own resolutions urging the Murphy administration to sue the oil giants.
It is unclear at this point if the state will join Hoboken’s cause. Grewal declined to comment on Hoboken’s lawsuit, but said the state is “exploring all options for protecting New Jersey residents in court.”
“Over the past two years, we’ve taken action against some of the nation’s largest polluters for the damage that they have done to New Jersey’s environment, as part of our commitment to ensuring robust environmental enforcement and promoting environmental justice,” Grewal said.
This story was updated at 4:27 p.m. with additional information from BP.