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Oregon’s biggest county sues fossil fuel companies for $52B two years after deadly heat dome

A map of the U.S. with dark red around the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia while much of the rest of the country is colored white or blue.
NASA Earth Observatory
This NASA map illustrates the extent to which average temperatures were exceeded during the heat dome.

Two years ago, the Pacific Northwest was hammered by extreme heat that cost hundreds of lives. Now, Multnomah County – home to Portland – is suing a number of major fossil fuel companies.

In normally-mild Portland, temperatures peaked at a record-shattering 116 degrees as the so-called heat dome hovered over the region in late June 2021. Local officials reported 69 heat deaths during the last week of that month. In a typical year, there are none.

A group of scientists concluded that the event would have been “virtually impossible” in the absence of human-caused climate change.

Multnomah County's lawsuit seeks $52 billion from a number of companies and organizations, accusing them of negligence, fraud and creating a public nuisance. They include Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute.

“The heat dome that cost so much life and loss was not a natural weather event. It did not just happen because life can be cruel, nor can it be rationalized as simply a mystery of God’s will,” the complaint reads. “Rather, the heat dome was a direct and foreseeable consequence of the Defendants’ decision to sell as many fossil fuel products over the last six decades as they could and to lie to the County, the public, and the scientific community about the catastrophic harm that pollution from those products into the Earth’s and the County’s atmosphere would cause.”

The Western States Petroleum Association, one of the defendants named in the suit, did not respond to a request for comment. An Exxon Mobil spokesperson issued a statement to several outlets, saying: “Suits like these continue to waste time, resources and do nothing to address climate change. 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.”

There are a number of ongoing climate lawsuits – most notably the case in Montana that went to trial last week – but Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said that the recently filed action is unique in that it has a specific, discrete weather phenomenon – the heat dome – at its heart.

“There's a very clear scientific connection between climate change and the severity of what we experienced there,” she said. “I mean, we had temperatures that were 40 degrees Fahrenheit above our daily average for that time of year. People were unprepared, physically. Our bodies were not prepared to have that kind of intense heat happen ever, but especially so early in the season. And what that did was cause irreparable harm.”

With extreme heat, wildfires and other disasters exacerbated by climate change regularly devastating communities and landscapes across the American West, Vega Pederson said municipalities across the region face an urgent situation.

“This is a step that Multnomah County is proud to take, that we feel is necessary to take,” she said. “And I think other jurisdictions can—and should—step up and do something similar.”

And there's no time like the present.

“If we wait around for big oil to do the right thing, we are going to be waiting forever on a burning planet,” she added.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Murphy Woodhouse
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