Village sues energy firms for climate change (2/27/08)

KIVALINA: 23 companies blamed for emissions tied to coastal erosion threat.

February 27, 2008 

The eroding village of Kivalina in the Northwest Arctic is suing Exxon Mobil and 23 other energy companies for damage related to global warming.

The suit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco on behalf of the Native village's federally recognized tribe and its city government, according to lawyers for the village.

Kivalina, located on a shrinking barrier island in the Chukchi Sea, says the energy companies should pay to move the village to safer ground.

"We need to relocate now before we lose lives," said Janet Mitchell, city administrator for Kivalina, in a news release announcing the lawsuit.

The companies are contributing to global warming that is threatening to destroy the village, according to the lawsuit, which demands a jury trial. The defendants include one coal company, nine oil companies and 14 power companies. Three of the oil companies -- Exxon, BP and Conoco Phillips -- operate on Alaska's North Slope.

Exxon spokesman Gantt Walton said Tuesday that the company needs more time to review the lawsuit before commenting. Conoco and BP officials in Alaska declined to comment for this story.

In the past few years, cost estimates to relocate Kivalina to the mainland have varied between $95 million and $400 million.

State and federal officials are working on plans for additional shoreline protection for Kivalina and other coastal villages threatened by erosion. There is no plan for relocating them yet. One village, Newtok, has begun relocating itself.

State officials hadn't heard about the lawsuit Tuesday and didn't know how it would affect their planning.

"Now there is a good question. ... It would take quite a bit of time to accomplish anything through the courts, as evidenced by Exxon Valdez and other things," said Mike Black, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. He was referring to the civil lawsuit filed by fishermen and other plaintiffs for damages related to the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. The case is being argued in the U.S. Supreme Court today.

SEVERE STORMS

Kivalina's nearly 400 residents, most of them Inupiat Eskimo, have been buffeted by severe storms in recent years. Last fall, many residents briefly evacuated Kivalina worrying that a big storm would wipe out homes and other buildings. The storm wasn't as bad as feared but it took out a chunk of the village's seawall.

The lawsuit cites reports published by the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the U.S. General Accountability Office that have linked erosion in coastal areas of Alaska to climate change and rising temperatures.

Sea ice forms and attaches to the coast later in the year, breaks up earlier and is less extensive and thinner, exposing the village to storm waves and surges, according to the lawsuit.

"Each of the defendants knew or should have known of the impacts of their emissions on global warming and on particularly vulnerable communities such as coastal Alaskan villages," the complaint says.

ALLEGED CONSPIRACY

Some of the companies, especially Exxon, also are liable for damages to Kivalina because they are guilty of conspiring to "create a false scientific debate" about global warming to deceive the public, according to the lawsuit.

The legal complaint details the alleged conspiracy, saying that trade associations have "formed and used front groups, fake citizens organizations and bogus scientific bodies. ... The most active in such efforts is and has been defendant Exxon Mobil," the suit claims.

Walton of Exxon defended his company's stance on climate change. The company takes the issue seriously and is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, funding research and talking about climate change policy with governments around the world, he said.

The law firms spearheading the lawsuit are the San Francisco-based Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment and the Anchorage office of the Native American Rights Fund.

Nine other attorneys are involved. Some are litigating other climate change-related suits, including defending California's attempt to force auto makers to comply with its greenhouse emissions limits, which are stricter than federal regulations.

This isn't the first time an Eskimo group has pointed blame at others for climate change. In 2005, the chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and more than 60 Inuit hunters and elders in Alaska and Canada asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hold hearings in Canada and Alaska to investigate harm posed to Inuit people in the Arctic by climate change, and to declare the United States in violation of human rights law as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The commission rejected the petition but allowed testimony at a brief hearing last March in Washington, D.C.

In addition to Exxon, BP and Conoco, the Kivalina lawsuit names Chevron Corp., Shell Oil Co., Peabody Energy Corp., AES Corp., American Electric Power Co., DTE Energy Co., Duke Energy Corp., Dynegy Holdings Inc., Edison International, MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., Mirant Corp., NRG Energy, Pinnacle West Capital Corp., Reliant Energy Inc., Southern Co., Xcel Energy Inc. and a few other affiliated companies.


Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.

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