Why Vancouver City Council should Sue Big Oil: Our presentation to Council

March 2, 2023

West Coast Environmental Law gave a presentation to Vancouver City Council this week regarding the City’s 2023 draft operational budget, urging Council to include the climate lawsuit in the budget as per Council’s July 2022 commitment to do so. See our presentation to Council (below).

Unfortunately, Council voted that evening to pass the budget without funding for the climate lawsuit, even rejecting a last-minute motion from Councillor Carr to set aside just one cent per resident for the lawsuit (amounting to just $6,600). To read more, see West Coast’s media release Climate impacts drive up Vancouver taxes, but Vancouver Council lets Big Oil off the hook and this Vancouver Sun op-ed.

Presentation to City Council – February 28, 2023

Thank you Mayor Sim and Council for the opportunity to present to you today. My name is Fiona Koza and I am a Vancouver resident and the Climate Accountability Strategist at West Coast Environmental Law.

I would like to speak with you today about whether the city will be able to afford to protect its residents from the skyrocketing costs of climate change, and in particular, the omission of funds for a climate lawsuit from the 2023 draft operating budget.

As climate change worsens, the City of Vancouver, like other municipal governments, will struggle to deal with the rising costs of climate resilient infrastructure and emergency responses to climate disasters.

As you know, Vancouver has been hard hit by devastating climate change impacts in the past few years, such as the heat dome that tragically killed over 600 British Columbians including over 100 in Vancouver; wildfires that have filled our city with smoke, drought that reduced our water supply, and storms and floods that have damaged facilities and infrastructure, destroyed nearby highways and disrupted supply chains.

Climate change is not a distant problem that will happen in the future. It is happening here and now. And it IS going to get worse.

City staff have estimated that the City is already spending approximately $50 million per year on climate costs. And it is expected that Vancouver will need to spend at least $1 billion in the future to keep residents safe from sea level rise. 

As noted by Mayor Sim in a newspaper article last week, the City faces a $500 million annual capital deficit – to repair and replace facilities, infrastructure, and utilities, that are aging and ill-equipped to deal with the present day and future realities of climate change. Although it may not be obvious, climate impacts are a major cause of the 9.7% increase in taxes proposed in this budget – costs related to road maintenance, sewer and water infrastructure upgrades, etc. 

What are we going to do when these costs continue to escalate? You know as well as I do that the City of Vancouver, and by extension taxpayers, cannot afford these sky-high costs.

And the city shouldn’t have to bear the full brunt of those costs. Those most responsible for causing the problem should pay for a share of the damages.

You may recall past class action lawsuits that were successfully brought against the tobacco industry, asbestos industry, and Big Pharma. These lawsuits held industry accountable for the harms caused by their products and made the companies pay a share of the costs of the damage they knowingly caused. Similarly, the fossil fuel industry is the largest contributor to climate change and should be ordered to pay its fair share for climate change related costs.

Recognizing that the City of Vancouver cannot afford the escalating costs of climate change, Vancouver City Council voted in July 2022 to set-aside up to $1 per resident in the 2023 budget to support a class action climate lawsuit. The intent is to collaborate with other local governments across BC to launch a class action lawsuit targeting the world’s largest polluters, to make them pay a share of the costs of climate change in BC communities.

Vancouver, showing great leadership, is the first city in BC to make a commitment to come on board this province-wide class action climate change lawsuit that is being advocated for by West Coast Environmental Law and dozens of other BC organizations. But please note, Mayor and Council, that there are many towns and cities across BC that are considering joining the City of Vancouver in this lawsuit. And one of the great things about it being a class action lawsuit is that the costs of the lawsuit will shared by multiple municipalities.

 I would also like to highlight that 40 US cities and states have already filed similar lawsuits targeting Big Oil. It’s a growing trend. And it’s great that the City of Vancouver is going to be at the forefront of this trend in Canada.

 Or at least, we thought that Vancouver was leading the way.

 However, I am here today to express my deep concern that the climate lawsuit appears to have vanished from the 2023 budget. I am not sure how this could have happened, because Vancouver City Council voted, seven-and-a-half months ago in July 2022, to direct City Staff to include the money for the climate lawsuit in the budget, and to the best of my knowledge there was never an official decision or directive to remove it.

 I urge you to put the climate lawsuit back in the budget. Indeed, I don’t think the city can afford not to.

 Two dozen Canadian law professors have co-signed a letter stating that the proposed lawsuit is grounded in a solid legal basis. I believe you also have access to a legal opinion by noted lawyer Joseph Arvay, from the firm Arvay Finlay, exploring the merits of this strategy. 

 There is also considerable public support for this. A survey of British Columbians last summer demonstrated that 69% of the population either supports or strongly supports their local governments working together to make the fossil fuel industry pay for a share of climate costs. And this week I will send you a petition signed by over 1000 Vancouverites in support of the City of Vancouver working with other local governments to sue Big Oil to help the City pay for climate costs.

To close, I want to emphasize that rather than looking at this as an additional expense, Council should view the climate lawsuit as a prudent way to recoup tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Are you going to tell Vancouver residents that in order to save $660,000, you’re going to make them pay hundreds of millions of dollars in climate costs while letting global fossil fuel companies entirely off the hook? That’s false economy. The City cannot afford all the climate related costs that are looming, and suing the fossil fuel industry is a fiscally-responsible way to pass a portion of those costs on, so that the full price tag doesn’t fall to the City and its residents.

Photo by Aditya Chinchure via Unsplash.