Karen Savage is an investigative journalist who has reported on climate change-related itigation, environmental justice, policing, and other social justice issues. Her work has appeared in Climate Docket, Undark Magazine, In These Times, Project Earth, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Truthout, City Limits, and more. Karen is an alum of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, where she won the Sidney Hillman Award for Social Justice Reporting.
“Like a War on the Environment” —Texaco’s 30 Years in Ecuador

“Like a War on the Environment” —Texaco’s 30 Years in Ecuador

There is one core allegation at the center of the decades-long court fight by Indigenous Ecuadorians for environmental justice: That to save money, Texaco (later acquired by Chevron) deliberately dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into hundreds of uncovered, unlined pits that now dot over a million acres.

Texaco has admitted to dumping 15.8 billion gallons.

Better technology might have prevented some of the subsequent environmental contamination from those pits, but Texaco chose not to use it.

Oil in its natural state is trapped underground and surrounded by water. During extraction, the water — referred to as production, waste, or formation water — rises to the surface with the oil. This waste water is salty and often mixed with oil, naturally occurring radioactive material, and other chemicals. It’s highly toxic, and must be handled and disposed of with caution.

In the U.S., stretching back decades to the 1970s, regulators require that drilling waste water be re-injected into the ground, where it is less likely to harm people or the environment. Texacos’s 1960s-era drilling predates that requirement, but at a minimum, as Tim Lagonegro, a geologist who spent more than 30 years consulting for oil companies, put it: “They had tarps back then, too.”

But in Ecuador, where there were no regulators making similar demands, Texaco saved billions by dumping its oily waste into unlined pits and leaving it there. The company dug these pits wherever it was most convenient. Sometimes those sites were next to homes, adjacent to drinking water wells, and uphill from rivers and streams local residents relied on for bathing and fishing.

Judith Kimerling, a former New York assistant attorney general who helped prosecute Occidental in the 1970s for its contamination of Love Canal, says what happened in Ecuador is appalling.

“I thought that …

Oil Industry Links in Donziger Contempt Trial

Oil Industry Links in Donziger Contempt Trial

Just a few years ago, human rights attorney Steven Donziger was traveling from New York City to a tiny oil town in the Ecuadorian rainforest about twice a month, as part of a team working with a group of Ecuadorians to sue Chevron over toxic waste pits in the Amazon.

This November, the outcome of a New York-based criminal trial will determine whether Donziger — who eventually helped the Ecuadorians win an $18 billion dollar judgement against Chevron in the Ecuadorian courts (since reduced to $9.5 billion) — will spend time in prison himself. In response to a request from Donziger’s legal team, the private legal team appointed by a federal judge to prosecute Donziger, disclosed a link between their firm and Chevron.

Drilled News has uncovered another link between the firm, Seward & Kissel, and the oil industry: The husband of lead prosecutor Rita Glavin, Matthew S. Amatruda, who recently worked for ExxonMobil.

While Exxon is not a part of the Ecuador case, Chevron and Exxon are co-defendants in dozens of climate change-related lawsuits filed by municipalities across the United States.

Dave LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said he sees no conflict for Glavin related to Amatruda’s work for Exxon.

“He works for another company, so I think that really cleanses it,” said LaBahn.

Conflicts could potentially only arise if Amatruda worked for Chevron, or if Exxon were involved in the Donziger case, he said.

Seward & Kissel, which has handled the prosecution of Donziger since 2019, disclosed in March that it has represented Chevron as recently as 2018.

Documents obtained by Courthouse News show that through the end of May, the firm billed taxpayers nearly $260,000 for its prosecution of Donziger, a total that is likely now much higher.

Donziger’s attempts to get the case …

Climate Liability Cases Score a Win with 9th Circuit Decision to Keep Them in State Court

Climate Liability Cases Score a Win with 9th Circuit Decision to Keep Them in State Court

Six California municipalities scored crucial wins on Tuesday when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent their climate liability suits against several fossil fuel companies back to state court, rejecting the companies’ arguments that the cases belong in federal court.

The 9th Circuit is the second appellate court to rule that climate-related lawsuits brought by municipalities across the country belong in state court. The 4th Circuit ruled earlier this year that a case filed by Baltimore against more than two dozen fossil fuel producers and distributors belongs in state court. The 10th Circuit is currently considering whether a suit filed by three Colorado communities belongs in state or federal court, and the 1st Circuit is reviewing the issue in a case filed by Rhode Island.

“I think a lot of plaintiffs were watching very carefully to see what happened in the 9th Circuit to see how this question of jurisdiction was resolved,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law.

The battle over jurisdiction — whether these cases belong in state or federal court — has been hotly contested. Fossil fuel companies are arguing for them to be heard in federal court, where the firms generally have had better success getting them dismissed. Municipalities want to keep them in state court, where the majority of the cases have been filed, and the plaintiffs expect to have better luck.

“With the 9th Circuit holding in favor of tort and nuisance claims based on state law, it’s really going to open the door to lots of other public plaintiffs that may be considering similar suits,” Muffett said.

Suits filed by Honolulu, King County in Washington state, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, a trade association of West Coast fishermen, have been on hold pending the 9th …

SEC Orders Exxon to Let Shareholders Vote on a Climate Denier’s Resolution

SEC Orders Exxon to Let Shareholders Vote on a Climate Denier’s Resolution

The Securities and Exchange Commission, for the second year running, has allowed Chevron and ExxonMobil to bar shareholder resolutions calling on the firms to fully disclose how they are working to curb their contributions to climate change.

But in their March 23 announcement, federal financial regulators approved an Exxon shareholder resolution sponsored by a noted climate skeptic, which calls for the firm to do a “greenwashing audit”

The shareholder behind the proposal is Steven J. Milloy, a longtime conservative lobbyist and political operative who publishes JunkScience.com, a website that attacks established climate science.

Following the 2016 election, Milloy — who authored a book that year titled “Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA” — worked on then-President-elect Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

Milloy said he introduced the shareholder proposal in order to learn how much Exxon has spent on what he claims are “dishonest” public relations and advertising campaigns that portray the firm as “doing something on climate.” He has proposed similar resolutions in the past.

“Greenwashing is meant to protect management,” said Milloy. “They can go out in public and try to claim they’re doing something. It’s all just posing, they’re just posers, pretending they’re doing something on climate.”

Milloy, who E&E News reporter Scott Waldman described in 2018 as consistently “taking discredited positions for two decades” on the science behind public health and environmental regulations regarding air pollution, secondhand smoke, and climate change, said that if Exxon believed climate change was real, it would have acted by now to curb the firm’s contributions to the problem.

In 2015, InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times published investigations documenting how Exxon and other oil majors invested millions of dollars in public messaging campaigns promoting doubt about climate science in order to delay climate action, despite having …

Oil Companies Appeal to Supreme Court in Baltimore Climate Case

Oil Companies Appeal to Supreme Court in Baltimore Climate Case

Attorneys for ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP, along with nearly two dozen other fossil fuel companies named in a climate damages suit by the city of Baltimore, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a March decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to keep the case in state court.

Baltimore Acting City Solicitor Dana P. Moore said in a statement that she was “disappointed” that the oil and gas firms “continue to do or say anything to avoid accountability” for decades of misleading the public about climate change in order to delay climate action. “After raking in trillions of dollars in profits for themselves in just the past 30 years, they now expect Baltimore’s taxpayers to pay the enormous costs for the climate change damage the corporations knowingly caused.” Her office has 30 days to respond to the appeal.

The question of jurisdiction — whether the proper venue for a case is state or federal court — has been a hotly contested issue in climate liability suits. The outcome of this appeal could have widespread ramifications for communities across the country attempting to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for worsening climate change.

Most of the suits have been filed in state courts, and allege violations of state law. But fossil fuel companies have typically tried to move them to federal court, where precedents set in an earlier wave of climate lawsuits found that the Clean Air Act took precedence over state or local liability claims.

In March, the 4th Circuit became the first appellate court to weigh in directly on the jurisdiction question, ruling that Baltimore’s case belonged in state court, where it was originally filed in 2018. The 1st, 9th, and 10th Circuit Courts have also heard arguments about jurisdiction in …

Montana Youth Sue State for Promoting Fossil Fuels

Montana Youth Sue State for Promoting Fossil Fuels

Sixteen young Montanans have accused the state and its governor of violating their rights under the state constitution to a clean and healthy environment, by supporting a fossil fuel-driven energy system that contributes to climate change.

In a lawsuit filed on March 13 in the First Judicial District Court of Lewis and Clark County, lawyers for the young plaintiffs, who range from 2 to 18 years old, have asked the court to declare that Montana’s energy policies violate the state’s constitution. They also want the court to order the state to prepare a detailed assessment of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, and to develop a science-based plan to reduce those emissions.

“Allowing emissions to continue unabated is utterly irrational,” Shiloh Hernandez, a staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center and co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a press release. “Montana is already suffering the lashes of climate change: higher temperatures, less snowpack, lower summer stream flows, worsening droughts, heatwaves, larger and longer wildfires and choking smoke waves, widespread forest die-offs, and decreased agriculture and tourism,” Hernandez added.

Lead plaintiff Rikki Held. (Credit: Our Children's Trust)
Lead plaintiff Rikki Held. (Credit: Our Children’s Trust)

The lead plaintiff in the case, Held et al. v. State of Montana et al., is 18-year-old Rikki Held, whose family has lived in the state for five generations.

“Our government knows the devastating effects of fossil fuels and must take action to protect the land that my family and fellow Montanans rely upon and hope to conserve for future generations,” Held said in a press release.

Other co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs include Nate Bellinger, a senior staff attorney with the nonprofit environmental law group Our Children’s Trust, and Roger Sullivan, a senior partner at McGarvey Law.

The state of Montana, along with Gov.Steve Bullock and several state regulatory departments, are …

Federal Judge: Massachusetts Climate Claims Against Exxon Belong in State Court

Federal Judge: Massachusetts Climate Claims Against Exxon Belong in State Court

A climate fraud lawsuit filed against ExxonMobil by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey belongs in state court, a federal judge ruled at a Tuesday hearing conducted by phone due to the COVID-19 crisis.

In an oral decision first reported by Bloomberg, U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young rejected Exxon’s argument that the lawsuit belongs in federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act because the charges brought by Massachusetts were a type of class action suit.

Young also brushed aside Exxon’s claim that Healey’s suit was part of a larger scheme of “plaintiffs’ attorneys, climate activists, and special interests to force a political and regulatory agenda that has not otherwise materialized through the legislative process.”

“We are glad the federal court has agreed that our case against ExxonMobil belongs in state court,” Chloe Gotsis, spokesperson for Attorney General Healey, said in a statement. “Our office will continue its work to hold this company accountable for its illegal deception of Massachusetts consumers and investors.”

Massachusetts has contended that while Exxon long knew its products drove climate change, the oil giant intentionally misled consumers for decades about the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change, failed to disclose climate-related risks to its investors, and failed to disclose how climate impacts from continued fossil fuel burning would threaten the global economy.

Healy filed the suit in Massachusetts Superior Court last October, following a lengthy investigation. As fossil fuel defendants have in climate change-related suits filed by municipalities across the country, Exxon moved the case, which involves only state law claims, to federal court shortly after it was filed. Federal courts have typically ruled that cases related to climate change should be dismissed because they are best handled by other branches of government.

“We will review the court’s decision and …

Federal Judge: Massachusetts Climate Claims Against Exxon Belong in State Court

Rhode Island, California Municipalities Fight to Keep Climate Suits in State Court

Victor M. Sher, a lawyer representing Rhode Island and several California municipalities in climate liability suits against the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, sent letters to two federal appeals courts this week, urging them to follow the lead of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently ruled that Baltimore’s climate liability suit belongs in state court.

Sher filed the letters with the 1st Circuit and the 9th Circuit appeals courts on March 9, 2020.

The counties of Marin, San Mateo and Santa Cruz, along with the cities of Imperial Beach, Santa Cruz and Richmond in California, as well as Rhode Island and Baltimore, have filed suits in state courts against Chevron, Exxon, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and more than a dozen other fossil fuel companies. They allege the companies violated state nuisance laws and failed to warn the public that the burning of their products contribute to climate change.

The question of jurisdiction — whether the cases should be heard in state or federal courts — has been a key point of contention in the suits. The fossil fuel corporations have argued that the cases belong in federal court, where the firms seem to believe they have a better chance of getting them dismissed.

In the latest rounds of that battle, the fossil fuel defendants in cases brought by Rhode Island, Baltimore, and the California municipalities appealed lower court rulings that the suits belong in state court.

The 4th Circuit last week upheld the lower court’s decision to keep Baltimore’s suit in state court.

Decisions by the 1st Circuit regarding Rhode Island’s suit, as well as by the 9th Circuit regarding the California cases, are expected in coming months.

Chevron attorney Ted Boutrous sent letters last month to the same courts, arguing that a recent ruling by the 5th …

Māori Activist’s Climate Case Will Go to Trial

Māori Activist’s Climate Case Will Go to Trial

A New Zealand court has agreed to hear a lawsuit filed by a Māori climate activist against seven of the nation’s leading carbon polluters over their contributions to climate change.

Mike Smith, chair of the Climate Change Iwi Leaders Group of the Iwi Chairs Forum, filed the case last year against four fossil fuel firms — Genesis Energy, Z Energy, NZ Refining, and BT Mining — as well as NZ Steel and two food and farming companies, Fonterra and Dairy Holdings.

Smith has asked the court to implement a plan that would force the companies to reduce their net carbon emissions to zero by 2030.

In his March 6 decision, High Court Justice Edwin Wylie dismissed claims of public nuisance and negligence, but allowed the question of the firms’ legal duty to stop emitting heat-trapping greenhouse gases to go to trial. “It may be that a novel claim such as that filed by Mr. Smith could result in the further evolution of the law of tort,” Wylie stated in his ruling. “It may, for example, be that the special damage rule in public nuisance could be modified; it may be that climate change science will lead to an increased ability to model the possible effects of emissions.”

“These are issues which can only properly be explored at trial.”

New Zealand’s indigenous Māori communities, and their traditional customs and cultural sites, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a 2017 government report. In early 2019, the New Zealand Herald reported that the collapse of “a Māori burial site atop a cliff in the Bay of Plenty…onto the beach below, scattering human remains into the sand and the sea [was] not an isolated incident, with hundreds of coastal urupā across the country threatened by rising seas and …

Elite Law School Students To Paul, Weiss: Drop ExxonMobil

Elite Law School Students To Paul, Weiss: Drop ExxonMobil

Students at some of the nation’s top law schools are demanding that the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a top U.S. law firm, drop ExxonMobil as a client, saying they will not work for the firm until it stops defending the oil giant in climate change-related lawsuits.

The students have interrupted recruiting events at elite law schools including Yale, New York University, Harvard, and Michigan Law School in recent months. Organizers are encouraging fellow law students across the country to sign a pledge to not interview with or work for Paul, Weiss, until the firm ends its relationship with Exxon.

“We’re not saying death to Paul, Weiss, we’re just asking the people who work at this firm to come on our side and help us fight for a livable future instead of representing companies like Exxon,” said Angela Liao, a first-year student at Yale.

“We students at Michigan Law School will not work for you as long as you work for ExxonMobil,” students said in unity shortly after unfurling a banner that read #DropExxon at a reception sponsored by Paul, Weiss, which the firm held last month in Ann Arbor.

Elite law school students are heavily recruited by big firms like Paul, Weiss, “which gives us a position of privilege and power that many people don’t have,” Liao said. The growing protest movement hopes to encourage students, as well as attorneys currently working at Paul, Weiss, to use that privilege not just for personal gain, but for the betterment of all, she said.

Their protest could have real consequences for the firm. About 29 percent of law school students are hired through on-campus recruiting events, according to James G. Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, a research organization that advises law schools, students, …