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British Columbia City of Victoria recommends class-action lawsuit against the oil and gas industry

The City of Victoria has become the first municipality in B.C. to support filing a class-action lawsuit that seeks to have oil and gas companies help pay a portion of the costs associated with climate change and is hoping other municipalities follow its lead.

A Victoria council meeting, held on Jan. 17, found that the impacts of climate change have resulted in substantial costs for local B.C. governments, and asks the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) to examine the possibility of initiating the lawsuit.

“Our province is in a climate emergency and response from fossil fuel companies has been inadequate,” Victoria Councillor Ben Isitt said. “The cost of climate change has been overwhelming for local governments in B.C., and taxpayers shouldn’t be the only ones paying for the impacts.”

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The decision comes days after the Insurance Bureau of Canada estimated that Canadian governments paid up to $5.7-billion for uninsured damages caused by extreme weather events in 2018. A report in 2015 estimated that storm surges and a one-metre rise in sea level, which is projected by the year 2100, could cost Victoria businesses up to $415,557 a day.

“We’re all facing the consequences of climate change in different ways, but we have to respond as one,” Mr. Isitt added.

A similar campaign established in 2017 saw 16 municipalities across the province write letters to the 20 largest fossil fuel companies in the world, requesting them to pay for the impacts of climate change. The Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities, representing 53 local governments, joined the movement, but the motion was narrowly defeated at the UBCM annual meeting last year.

Victoria council received only one reply in the 2017 campaign, from Shell Canada.

According to Mr. Isitt, Shell Canada’s response demonstrated no binding commitments to shift away from the use of fossil fuels, or any attempts to mitigate the costs for affected communities.

Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law, which is working with municipalities on the campaign, says that although the oil and gas industry is dismissing municipalities' concerns, some communities are prepared to take a more aggressive stance in the form of litigation.

The City of Victoria is instructing staff to track the city’s climate-related costs, and is seeking legal advice in relation to the letter from Shell Canada concerning the companies' responsibility as they prepare to endorse the resolution at the 2019 UBCM annual meeting in September.

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The new Vancouver council hasn't taken a stand yet, but Green Party Councillor Pete Fry said the councillors in his party, along with those from COPE and OneCity, as well as the mayor, support the idea of the city joining a lawsuit.

He said the initiative is going through internal discussions because it involves complex legal issues and judgments about how useful it would be for the city to get embroiled in a lawsuit.

"The lawyers have been looking at it. At a certain point, it will take a decision from council. Then we will have to decide how much political capital to stake on that. On a party level, we have been pushing for it."

Mr. Fry said he recognizes that the public doesn’t like it when city councillors start taking on what seem to be symbolic political causes – “they didn’t elect the Don Quixote council” – and they wouldn’t be enthusiastic about paying millions for a lawsuit that produces nothing.

But, he said, they may come to support a lawsuit when they realize how high the costs will be for cities to cope with the impacts of climate change.

In response to the momentum building around B.C., Tara Lemay, head of media relations at Shell Canada, says filing lawsuits against the procedures of energy providers is not the answer.

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“We believe co-operation is required,” she said.

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