The City of Richmond's contorted relationship with fossil fuels

After voting to sue fuel companies for their role in climate change, local officials signed off on a jet-fuel pipeline project that will create decades of emissions. Awkward? Stewart Muir looks at the issue.

Only a small number of municipalities in British Columbia have caved in to lobbying efforts by West Coast Environmental Law to join speculative class-action lawsuits against oil and gas companies for the stated intention of recovering the cost of local climate mitigation efforts.

The absurdity of pointing the finger at those who supply fuels, while overlooking the fact that 80 per cent of the climate impact of fossil fuels comes from consumers, is self evident to many. So it's not surprising that most municipalities are giving the campaign a wide berth, preferring instead to follow plans and policies focused on local actions.


One council that has seen fit to join the environmental group's campaign is Richmond, where councillors voted in June 2019 to take steps including asking BC Premier John Horgan to pass legislation that will enable a class-action lawsuit against fuel companies.

A similar law proposed in Ontario would have applied the legal concept of 'strict liability' to all producers (exploration, recovery, refining, sale) of fossil fuels where globally detectable levels of greenhouse gas emissions could be attributed to their actions/products.

This implies that everyone in the fuel supply chain – including even the corner gas station – would be on the hook for damages caused by consumer use of fuel.

Wrote Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie in the city’s letter to the premier: “Such legislation is 'essential both to protect BC taxpayers against rising costs from climate-related impacts and to give global fossil fuel companies incentives to transition from fossil fuels and join the fight against climate change.’” 

If that sounds like a clear position, wait for what happened just three weeks later.

Fresh on the heels of the climate litigation campaign, on July 22 Richmond council voted a final decision to approve a controversial jet fuel pipeline from southeast Richmond to the airport and a tank farm on the Fraser River.

The pipeline was proposed by the Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation, which is a consortium of airlines. It will end the practice of trucking jet fuel by road. 

Demand for fuel at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) was 1.4 billion litres per year when the project was first proposed. The new pipeline will help meet anticipated future demands of 3 B l/y – a doubling of capacity.

Even though Mayor Brodie took pains to state that nobody on his council wanted the pipeline, councillors nonetheless approved it.

On the one hand here is a city council suing those who enable fossil fuels, while on the other hand it also chooses to become chief enabler for a project that is facilitating increased use of the very same commodities.

Should Richmond now be preparing to sue itself, for enabling climate change by approving the pipeline? This could be difficult to explain to local voters wondering why they are being asked to fund actions against themselves. And just imagine the questions that will come from an inquisitive judge, should the litigation campaign ever move to the courts.

Richmond's municipal authorities have walked themselves straight into a moral quandary.

Climate accountability motions are thinly veiled threats to talk or get sued. They promote an adversarial process that will burden communities with an activist's agenda against fossil fuels in general under the guise of recouping supposed climate impacts. 

The high costs associated with lengthy lawsuits, coupled with low odds of success, are another reason not to waste taxpayer resources. Litigation advocates are now arguing, in a stroke of unintended satire, that legal threats are "consistent with a commitment to co-operation."

We're also hearing that the target of litigation is not Canadian employers in the oil and gas sector, but a list of Top 20 international companies. All this deflection does is set a precedent for subsequent shakedowns of Canadian companies who don't do what the activists demand.

Neither Canadian nor international companies had anything to do with local choices to build a city on a floodplain barely above sea level. Nor were they encouragers of urban-suburban sprawl that required use of the automobile. Local plans for increased tourism and air travel were not forced on Richmond by fuel companies. Tourism Richmond's goal of growing to 10 million visitations by 2020 simply cannot be accomplished without the use of fossil fuels, nor can the city's thousands of businesses get by for even an hour without using fuels that create emissions.

Cities can't have it both ways: encourage fuel use, then sue fuel makers. That is hypocrisy. An adversarial process will burden communities with an interest group's agenda, ultimately leaving local residents with the bills. Climate change mitigation would be better left to policymakers, not lawyers, working toward the low-carbon future that is essential for planetary success. Prudent public policy on such global-scale issues requires input and collaboration from all stakeholders and holds everyone accountable for their actions. 

Stewart Muir is executive director of Resource Works

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