Electric utilities in the United States understood the risks of climate change five decades ago, but still positioned themselves as epic greenhouse gas emitters, according to a report last week by the San Francisco-based Energy and Policy Institute.
The study “documents that utility companies understood as far back as the late 1960s how burning fossil fuels impacts climate change and describes how the utilities nonetheless continued to push coal, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide among fossil fuels, as an energy solution,” Climate Liability News reports, suggesting the findings “could potentially make them the next target of climate liability lawsuits.”
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Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, said utilities’ liability for climate dangers would not be exactly the same as oil producers’, since they each sit at a different point along the fossil fuel supply chain. “It is reasonable, though, to look at this information about what they knew and when and ask: what are the legal liabilities?” he said.
Climate Liability News chronicles the extensive research that has gone into documenting fossils’ history of studying, then ignoring climate risk, and the legal challenges that have resulted. “There is not yet similar research quantifying the responsibility of utility companies, although there is already one lawsuit under way that attempts to hold a major utility responsible for climate impacts,” writes reporter Kaitlin Sullivan. “A German court has agreed to hear a lawsuit by a farmer in Peru against Germany’s largest utility, RWE, that seeks compensation for climate damage in his village of Huaraz.”
Muffett told Sullivan a U.S. utility would more likely face legal action from ratepayers whose money they used to build new fossil plants. “The report on the utilities is useful in that it provides a lot of detail that we didn’t have before,” he said. “It could be the first very important step in unraveling potential lawsuits.”