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Alaska Beat

Small coastal village tangles in court with Exxon over global warming

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published December 1, 2011

Kivalina kicked off its legal appeal against the world's largest energy companies on Monday, with its lawyers claiming before a three-judge panel in San Francisco that companies like ExxonMobil, American Electric Power and others are major contributors to climate change and should pay for the imperiled village's imminent move.

That move -- the village may have less than a decade before it's wiped off the map -- could cost between up to $400 million. According to the Guardian, Kivalina lawyers argued in the Ninth U.S. Circuit of Appeals that the Inupiat village "depends on the sea ice that forms around the village in fall, winter, and spring. This protects it from the coastal storms that batter the coast of the Chukchi Sea," the article said.

"However, due to global warming, this landfast sea ice forms later in the year, attaches to the coast later, breaks up earlier, and is less extensive and thinner, subjecting Kivalina to greater coastal storm waves, storm surges and erosion.

"Houses and buildings are in imminent danger of falling into the sea. Critical infrastructure is threatened with permanent destruction."

Defendants' lawyer, Daniel Collins, with Munger, Tolles and Olson in Los Angeles, told the panel, according to the article, that "greenhouse gases allegedly cause harm only when the emissions of billions of entities accumulate worldwide, over many decades ... Plaintiffs might just as well have targeted steel mills in Pennsylvania... or a defendant class of all US car and truck owners." Video of the arguments are here.

The Inupiat village, founded in the early 1950s when the federal government built a school there, clings to a low-lying barrier island about 80 miles northwest of Kotzebue. A quarter-mile long rock revetment, installed in 2009 by the U.S. Army Corps to hold back the Chukchi Sea, should buy the village an estimated 10 to 15 years before seawater overwhelms the 350 residents.

The Northwest Alaska village lost the first round of its lawsuit in 2009, when a U.S. District Court dismissed it, saying climate-change pollution needs to be regulated by Congress and the administration, not courts. The village lacked standing, the court said, because it could not show the companies' emissions caused the erosion threatening the village.

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