A Brooklyn Democrat is taking aim at fossil fuel companies over climate change with a proposed bill that critics say might help lawyers more than Mother Earth.
The new legislation introduced by State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn) would allow people to sue big oil companies and other polluters over damage caused by fossil fuels — in a way similar to a controversial Texas law allowing individuals to sue abortion providers.
The bill would target companies that demonstrate “negligence” while “storing, transporting, refining, importing, exporting, producing, manufacturing” products such as petroleum and natural gas, according to the legislative language.
A legislative memo notes that 63% of the carbon dioxide and methane in the Earth’s atmosphere was generated by just 90 “entities,” including US-based companies like ExxonMobile and Chevron alongside foreign enterprises like Saudi Aramco.
“The costs of inaction are so high – more homes destroyed by worsening floods, more lives ruined by chronic asthma and extreme heat that threatens us all. It’s time for regular New Yorkers to say enough is enough,” Myrie told The Post.
His legislation emulates a controversial Texas abortion law that leans on private citizens, rather than the government, to sue for civil damages as a way to enforce restrictions even though Myrie told Spectrum News the Lone Star approach was “odious” and “wrongheaded.”
“But if legislators can use private rights of action to cause harm and restrict access to healthcare, we should also be able to use this concept to save our planet and protect our lives,” Myrie added.
Critics, however, say the proposed New York bill is too impractical.
“We’re not going to eliminate the [of fossil fuel] use anytime in the immediate future. We’re dependent on it – but you’re gonna say the person who provides this essential product is going to be financially liable for it?” Ken Pokalsky, vice president of the Business Council of New York, told The Post.
“What’s the logic of that?” he added.
Any company with annual revenues of $1 billion or more would be subject to the legislation, which has no statute of limitations, according to the bill language.
Its sweeping scope could make it vulnerable to court challenges, especially considering the difficulty in linking any personal problems caused by pollution with the purported negligence of fossil fuel companies, according to attorney Ryan McCall of Tully Rinckey.
“It’s going to be similar, in my opinion, to any other personal injury action, where we’re gonna need to get medical experts that are going to be able to say, as a result of this specific emission, that this type of injury happened to you,” he told The Post. “You would begin to see a flood of litigation when it comes to these types of environmental cases like we haven’t seen before.”
While there are plausible ways to make polluters pay for demonstrable damage caused by their use of fossil fuels, the bill as currently written could face formidable challenges from companies who object to New York telling them what to do inside and outside its borders, according to McCall.
“I definitely think you’re going to see federal challenges come into this bill. I think that’s going to be highly likely, but I do definitely think this bill has a lot of merit when it comes to allowing private actors to bring litigation,” he said.