Multnomah County is seeking nearly $52 billion in damages and future costs for climate adaptation in a lawsuit that filed Thursday against more than a dozen fossil fuel companies to hold them accountable for the unprecedented heat dome event in 2021.
Lawyers for the county are moving forward with a lawsuit against 17 oil and gas companies alleging that the burning of their fossil fuel products, which leads to greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet, was a substantial contributor to a heat dome event roughly two years ago. Ninety-six people died across Oregon as a result of the heat dome, with the majority living in Multnomah County.
The lawsuit claims the fossil fuel companies “rapaciously sell fossil fuel products and deceptively promote them as harmless to the environment,” leading to disasters like the heat dome.
During Thursday’s board meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to declare climate change a public nuisance, clearing the way for the attorneys to file a lawsuit against the fossil fuel companies. Those include Shell, Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil — the United States’ largest oil and gas producing company, which predicted global warming as early as 1977 and also knew the dangers of burning fossil fuels, according to a 2016 Pulitzer finalist investigation by Inside Climate News.
Multnomah County chair Jessica Vega Pederson said the lawsuit is about accountability and fairness, something she said residents of the county deserve.
“These businesses knew their products were unsafe and harmful, and they lied about it,” Vega Pederson said in a written statement. “They have profited massively from their lies and left the rest of us to suffer the consequences and pay for the damages.”
OPB has reached out for comment to the oil and gas companies named in the lawsuit, but most did not immediately respond.
In a written statement, ExxonMobil said the lawsuit did “nothing to address climate change.”
“Suits like these continue to waste time,” the company wrote. “This action has no impact on our intention to invest billions of dollars to leading the way in a thoughtful energy transition that takes the world to net zero carbon emissions.”
Similarly, an attorney for Chevron called the lawsuit unconstitutional and a “counterproductive distraction.”
The county is seeking $50 million in actual damages for the 2021 heat dome, $1.5 billion in future damages and $50 billion to better prepare for the changing climate. The county said it wants to conduct studies, upgrade public infrastructure and health care services, and safeguard residents from extreme weather events.
The deadly heat dome event, which trapped hot air that scorched the region for nearly a week during the summer of 2021, broke records across the state as temperatures in Portland ticked as high as 116 Fahrenheit. Most people who died were found alone in their homes with no air-conditioning units. According to a report published by the county, there were a total of 72 heat-related deaths in 2021, 69 of which happened during the heat dome event. In a typical year, there are zero heat-related deaths.
Researchers and scientists said the heat wave was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change, while other research found it was a freak event that should only happen once in 10,000 years, but was made hotter because of climate change. In its lawsuit, the county speculates that similar heat events could happen as frequently as every five or 10 years because of climate change.
Multnomah County is joining a growing list of more than two dozen other cities and counties across the nation that have filed similar lawsuits attempting to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for continuing to market products that science shows are driving human-caused climate change.
Multnomah County is represented by three law firms outside of their legal counsel.
“What is new about this case is how the leadership of Multnomah County is utilizing irrefutable climate science to hold corporate polluters accountable for their role in causing a discreet and disastrous event, as well as recent wildfires,” said attorney Roger Worthington.
He said he’s confident that once they show the jury what fossil fuel companies knew about climate change and their alleged failure to act, “the jury will not let the fossil fuel companies get away with their reckless misconduct.”
County legal counsel on Thursday said its outside attorneys will not charge fees for the case unless the county wins, and it could take between five and 10 years for the lawsuit to work its way through the legal system.
This story may be updated.