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Oregon county sues oil and gas companies over heat dome that killed about 800 people

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The most populous county in Oregon filed a lawsuit yesterday against oil and gas companies. It is seeking damages from the heat dome that blasted the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2021. That heat wave pummeled multiple states - also British Columbia - and killed around 800 people. Research has shown that the heat dome was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change. Monica Samayoa from Oregon Public Broadcasting has more.

MONICA SAMAYOA, BYLINE: Multnomah County, which includes Portland, is suing over a dozen fossil fuel companies in state court, including Shell, Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil. They say the companies were aware their products would increase temperatures and have a negative effect on the planet but deceived the public about it.

JESSICA VEGA PEDERSON: These companies have known their products were harmful for decades, but we are the ones literally paying the consequences.

SAMAYOA: That's Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. She says the county is seeking $50 million for damages from the 2021 heat wave, in which temperatures reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit and 69 people in the county died. They're also seeking more than a billion in damages for future extreme weather events and an additional $50 billion for climate adaptation. Pederson says that extreme heat waves will only become more common as a planet continues to warm. Researchers have said that the heat dome was virtually impossible without the burning of fossil fuels and that similar events could get much more frequent as temperatures increase.

PEDERSON: We know the likelihood of things getting better or even staying the same are less than zero unless these industry giants start paying for what they've done.

SAMAYOA: Not all of the companies named in the lawsuit responded to requests for comment. But in a statement, an attorney for Chevron called the lawsuit unconstitutional and, quote, "a counterproductive distraction." And a spokesperson for ExxonMobil said lawsuits like these, quote, "waste time, resources and do nothing to address climate change." This lawsuit is part of a growing list filed by over two dozen other cities and counties across the nation. Korey Silverman-Roati is a senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. He says that these lawsuits face an uphill battle. Oil and gas companies have immense legal resources to fight back, and it could take a long time to go to trial.

KOREY SILVERMAN-ROATI: Past efforts to hold industries accountable for these types of products, like tobacco, have taken years and have gone through waves of litigation.

SAMAYOA: But if any case were to win...

ROATI: I think it could have a galvanizing effect.

SAMAYOA: Roati says a winning case could provide a legal strategy for others to follow. Lawyers in Multnomah County expect it could take at least a decade for the case to be resolved. For NPR News, I'm Monica Samayoa in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Monica Samayoa / OPB
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