Suing oil companies over climate change will only hurt taxpayers

Holding piggy bank in hands
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Lee HardingThe City of Victoria wants to round up municipalities to sue oil companies for damages from climate change. Not only is such a case virtually impossible to prove, it’s also full of rich ironies.

Weather-related damages, termed “perils” in Canadian insurance plans, are more commonly called acts of God. How ironic that environmentalists envision the power to place oil companies on the divine throne, then sue them for damages.

Yet, Victoria city council, inspired by a United Nations mandate, wants to do just that – and get Vancouver and other cities to follow.

On Jan. 17, Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt issued a dire warning: “Our province is in a climate emergency and response from fossil fuel companies has been inadequate.”

In 2017, 16 B.C. municipalities wrote 20 fossil fuel companies to request compensation for damages from climate change. Only Shell Canada wrote back and but didn’t commit to stopping fossil fuel production or take financial responsibility for acts of God.

Now these municipal politicians want to try again.

Ironically, Isitt boasts that he’s travelled to “more than 70 countries for work or pleasure.” Did he walk there or did he use transportation propelled by fossil fuels?

“The cost of climate change has been overwhelming for local governments in B.C.,” Isitt said, “and taxpayers shouldn’t be the only ones paying for the impacts.”

If anyone charged taxpayers for climate change, it was Victoria city council. The city will spend $14.5 million to complete phase one of its bike lane project. That’s $170 per each of the 85,700 residents to reduce car lanes to create less congestion. The costs were twice that of projections, partly because Victorians demanded changes so at least some space remained for parking.

During Mayor Lisa Helps’ first mandate, the city got the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities to endorse its letter campaign, but not the Union of British Columbia Municipalities. Helps admitted in her re-election platform, “part of the inspiration for the next four years comes from the United Nations 2030 development goals.” Having survived last October’s election with 43 per cent of the vote, she’s ready to try again.

Vancouver might join the effort. “We will have to decide how much political capital to stake on that,” one councillor said, noting a legal loss would also be a financial hit for taxpayers and a political hit for its proponents.

This movement is comparable to, but more difficult than, the pay equity case fought by Canada Post employees for 30 years that wrapped up last fall. “Lots of lawyers have put their children through university on this case,” admitted University of Toronto professor David Doory. For three decades, Canadians paid for lawyers and court proceedings, and now face higher mailing costs to cover the $250-million judgment.

A lawsuit against oil companies would similarly force Canadians to cover legal fees. Even if it somehow succeeded, Canadians would indirectly pay the damages in higher driving and home heating bills.

Canada produces just 1.6 per cent of worldwide man-made carbon emissions, and these oil companies produce 30 per cent of that worldwide total. That’s a poor case. It’s even more difficult to conclusively pin bad Canadian weather on oil companies.

When the bill comes home to taxpayers, they can’t blame lawyers for the audacious attempt led by people like the Victoria city council. They can only blame the politicians who claimed oil companies took the place of God.

Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre For Public Policy.

climate change victoria oil companies

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