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Burnaby called on to sue “Big Oil”

At the city’s first Environment Committee meeting of 2024 on Feb. 21, a delegation from Burnaby For Our Kids, Force of Nature Alliance, and West Coast Environmental Law called on the city to join a class-action lawsuit against large fossil-fuel companies. The lawsuit aims to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate-related damages in BC municipalities.

“As a parent, I’m concerned about the health and safety of our community and the effects the climate crisis is having on our kids now and in the future, but as a taxpayer, I’m also concerned about how our city is going to adapt to our changing climate,” said Kate McMahon, head of the local chapter of For Our Kids in Burnaby.

“The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that Canadian municipalities will need to pay $5.3 billion a year to collectively cover these costs. Things like road repairs, rising sea levels, cooling centres, outfitting buildings to deal with extreme heat, to name a few, and we’re wondering where the city intends to get this money.” McMahon gave examples of the 2021 heat dome that killed 619 people in BC and increased flooding and wildfires.

According to Fiona Koza, climate accountability strategist with West Coast Environmental Law, with 60% ownership of local infrastructure, it would fall to local governments to file the lawsuit.

Municipalities would need to pledge $1 per resident for legal costs. Still, the lawsuit would only proceed if a critical mass of BC municipalities representing 500,000 residents is reached and a municipality agrees to act as lead plaintiff. So far, five BC municipalities have committed to suing Big Oil: Squamish, Gibson, Slocan, View Royal, and Qualicum Beach. Koza added that a 2022 public opinion poll by Stratcom Strategic Communications showed 69% of BC residents supported the campaign to sue Big Oil. She said that 50% of residents support the campaign, regardless of political affiliation.

“For someone who has seen the ravages of climate change, in the place where I live on Burnaby Mountain in the last 20 years, I try not to get emotional about it, but the class-action lawsuit is almost like a balm to a lot of us who live on the mountain and who have not been able to do a thing with the kind of constructions, with the tank farm, with everything that’s happening,” said resident representative Tara Shushtarian.

In October 2023, activists protested against the Trans Mountain pipeline and tank farm on Burnaby Mountain. Most recently, on Jan. 21, 2024, the Burnaby Parkland Refinery experienced a fire during scheduled maintenance that resulted in the release of fumes and smoke that negatively affected the air quality in Burnaby. The city has yet to recover the emergency response cost, which is estimated at $28,963.54. Committee chair, Coun. Joe Keithley raised the question of federal and provincial government involvement, to which Koza replied that the federal government is more inclined to subsidize the fossil fuel industry, adding that if governments stopped investing in fossil fuels and the companies had to pay for all the damages they caused to the environment, they would cease to be profitable.

“They’re not going to be this golden egg that everyone sees as an amazing industry.” She added that one-quarter of Americans now live in cities or states suing oil companies, and 60 municipalities and states are now suing them.

Resident representative Andrei Zawadzki said the only way to curb the power of fossil fuel companies is to address the demand.

“As long as people want to drive needlessly to work…that demand is still there, and they’re going to keep making money,” Zawadzki said. “They might just look at this as another cost of doing business. Hopefully not, but I can see them passing on that cost to the rest of us.”

He gave the example of the campaign to eliminate smoking, which was not just about holding tobacco companies accountable but also eliminating the demand.

Coun. Maita Santiago proposed a motion that the city commit to a class-action suit contingent upon other municipalities joining and committing to raising $500,000. The city would use any funds from the lawsuit to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Coun. Alison Gu supported the motion, saying municipalities must pay $5.3B while fossil fuel companies posted more than $200B in profits in 2022.

“Understanding a global approach is really important. These fossil fuel companies cause climate change impacts all over the world. Even though we are seeing the impacts of climate change here in Burnaby, people in the global south and poorer countries have it much worse,” said Gu. “I think it’s incumbent upon countries and municipalities that do have these funds to take on the actors who have caused the vast majority of the impact.”

Lubna El Elaimy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burnaby Beacon