From coast to coast, trial attorneys have persuaded a number of cities to sue energy producers in the name of climate change. And while such suits began in the places you might expect – San Francisco and New York City – the city of Hoboken soon will be front and center in the climate lawsuit drama unfolding in American municipalities.
On June 21, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in a case that Hoboken filed against a number of American energy producers. During my time as Mercer County Executive, my experience taught me that it is better to pursue practical solutions and good faith cooperation on complex problems such as global climate change, than to file contentious lawsuits. Local governments such as Hoboken would be well served with a constructive approach instead of a lengthy and expensive court battle. A divisive and confrontational lawsuit against the companies providing the fuel that families and businesses need won’t do anything to combat climate change.
The impracticality of such climate lawsuits and their applicability in having any effect at all is baffling to me. How would any implied effect of energy producers on climate change be any different for Hoboken than any other city, municipality, township, borough or region? Why would this be addressed locally rather than on a national level? This should be troubling to the people of Hoboken. The city’s lawsuit is part of a cookie cutter strategy led by out-of-state attorneys and environmental interest groups with no real stake in New Jersey. Sher Edling LLP, based in San Francisco, stands to make a fortune if several of the plaintiffs across the U.S. prevail in their lawsuits against energy producers or settles with them. The same firm has trotted out the same lawsuit in numerous other states, municipalities and counties, hoping to cash in on a climate litigation strategy that several federal courts have dismissed.
In the case of Hoboken, this strategy is even more interesting. A legal contract with the New York City-based law firm Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP says the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD) will bear the legal costs accrued by Hoboken. What is the IGSD? The nonprofit launched the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) in 2017 to support the kinds of lawsuits San Francisco-based Sher Edling has shopped to local governments from coast to coast. In other words, the nonprofit tries to convince local officials that climate lawsuits are a good idea and Sher Edling follows close behind to be the firm filing the lawsuit.
To date, investigative reports have revealed a good deal of the behind-the-scenes motives of the IGSD and its allies. For example, IGSD is one of several groups committed to fighting traditional energy production by advancing litigation. The institute receives funding from the Rockefeller Family Fund, a foundation that has manufactured the broader climate litigation strategy. The Rockefeller Family Fund, records show, gave IGSD over $1 million in 2017 specifically to target energy companies.
The stakes are high. Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, one of the firms authorized by Hoboken to handle the lawsuit, has been approved by the city for steep hourly rates. Official records show rates as high as $850 per hour for one attorney and similar rates for others. In addition, the firm stands to rake in a third of the first $750,000 recovered should the city win its lawsuit or settle and no less than 20% of winnings after that. Attorney Matthew Brinckerhoff, noted in the records, will be the one delivering the oral arguments at the June 21 hearing on behalf of Hoboken.
The bottom line? Out-of-state law firms, teaming with trial attorneys supported by out-of-state nonprofits with anti-energy agendas, are advancing yet another frivolous climate lawsuit with the help of Hoboken officials.
We are experiencing skyrocketing energy prices across the U.S. with the average gas price in New Jersey now over $5 and growing. Public officials should be doing everything they can to mitigate price increases, not filing lawsuits that, if successful, could worsen energy inflation and raise energy prices. After all, an attorney representing other plaintiffs acknowledged one of the goals is to force companies to “raise the price” of their fuel so the cost of climate change will “get priced into” energy products.
The better path for Hoboken and other municipalities, is good public policy that pursues practical solutions and good faith cooperation. The city should drop its climate lawsuit. If not, the court should dismiss it. There are more fruitful, and ultimately more effective ways, to make a difference on climate change.
Bob Prunetti is a former Mercer County executive and former president of the Mercer and MidJersey Regional Chamber of Commerce.