HOUSTON – Presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke grabbed a myriad of headlines last month by proposing to spend $5 trillion in an effort to combat climate change.
What garnered little attention from the media, however, was a single sentence in the “guarantee net-zero emissions” part of O’Rourke’s plan: “Enforcing our laws to hold polluters accountable, including for their historical actions or crimes.”
The sentence arguably leaves room for interpretation, and the former congressman’s campaign declined to offer an exact meaning of the statement.
But whether it’s civil or criminal action the Texan has planned, if O’Rourke wins and takes the oil and gas industry to court, the Lone Star economy could be drastically impacted.
“It is hypocritical, reckless and tone deaf of any candidate – particularly one from Texas – to suggest an action that would harm jobs in this major sector of our economy,” said Paul Simpson, county chair of the Harris County Republican Party.
“With unemployment in America at the lowest level in 50 years, Democrats like Robert O'Rourke are determined to kill jobs and wreck the Texas economy with their nonsensical Green New Deal.”
Texas leads the nation in crude oil reserves and production and is home to more than one-third of all U.S. crude oil proven reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Simpson, an oil and gas attorney, says the energy sector, which “employs countless hardworking Texans,” has become a “target” for Democrats.
“Republicans are proud of the men and women of Texas who provide the energy that fuels the world,” Simpson said. “Not only does each of us depend on these precious resources every day, but our economy and the livelihoods of thousands of Texas families need this critical industry.”
The argument that an attack on the oil and gas industry is an attack on Texas itself was one made by ExxonMobil earlier this year.
Exxon, which is headquartered in Irving, has already been dragged into numerous climate change suits by California municipalities and currently seeks to wage the legal battle on its home turf.
Climate change lawsuits, brought under a public nuisance theory, allege fossil fuel companies contributed to global warming-induced sea level rise and seek damages for past and future natural disasters, such as flooding.
Earlier this year, Exxon argued before a Texas appellate court that climate change litigation directly impacts the state’s biggest commercial market – oil, telling justices that no state comes close to matching Texas in the fossil fuel industry.
While climate change suits have yet to gain much traction in the courts, Leah Stokes, a public policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says climate change litigation will continue to be a “major concern” for fossil fuel companies.
“We saw with tobacco that a wave of lawsuits, unfolding over decades, slowly chipped away at that industry, and there are key similarities,” Stokes said. “In both cases, the companies have lied about the harm that their products cause.”
Stokes says while it's not clear what O'Rourke is proposing with his climate plan, one could imagine he might support the Department of Justice bringing cases against fossil fuel companies – similar to what occurred when the Clinton Administration targeted Philip Morris.
“Beto's plan, as written, is vague on his thinking,” Stokes said. “But it's clear that the courts will continue to be a major, important tool in the fight for accountability for fossil fuel companies' harmful actions against humanity.”
Case history on Exxon climate change litigation
On Jan. 15, the Second Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in an appeal brought by several California cities and counties that seek to dismiss Exxon's effort to depose numerous public officials and a private attorney they hired to orchestrate so-far unsuccessful climate change litigation against the oil industry.
The appeal comes after a Texas judge found the cities and counties were hypocritical in suing Exxon. They had claimed doom to their infrastructures will be caused by rising sea levels, but when issuing bond offers to potential investors, they had neglected to mention this alleged, near-certain destruction, the judge ruled.
Last January, Exxon filed a petition in Tarrant County District Court in response to the climate change litigation, seeking pre-suit discovery for a potential lawsuit against the California municipalities and officials and also Matt Pawa, a Hagens Berman attorney who is pursuing many of the cases on a contingency fee.
Pawa was purportedly instrumental in creating the “playbook” that includes efforts by the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts.
Exxon believes Pawa promoted his playbook to California municipalities, urging them to become potential plaintiffs in tort litigation against energy companies.
If the Second Court rejects the appeal, Exxon would then be permitted, barring an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, to continue its quest to depose Pawa and the California municipalities – laying the groundwork for the counter-lawsuit.
Exxon’s petition alleges the California municipalities engaged in a civil conspiracy by planning and then filing climate change lawsuits in California against co-defendants Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell.
In response to the petition, the municipalities filed special appearances, challenging the Texas trial court’s jurisdiction.
On March 14, 2018 Judge R.H. Wallace Jr., 96th District Court, denied all of the special appearances, prompting the appeal, court records show.
Exxon also contends the California parties seek to chill free speech and pressure energy companies to modify or silence their views on climate change.