OpEd — Pronti: If local leaders want to act on climate, lawsuits aren’t the answer


If there is one lesson you learn as Mayor, it is to know your role.

The residents of North Arlington rightfully hold me accountable for making sure our public works are functioning, our municipal spending is controlled and our books remain in good order.

Some officials throughout in the state, notably in Hoboken, have taken it upon themselves to file lawsuits against energy companies for climate change-related damages, claiming those companies allegedly concealed the link between fossil fuel production and climate change.

Simply put, litigation of this level is not the role of municipal or state governments.

Fortunately, many legal authorities agree, with Delaware’s state court recently granting a motion to dismiss some of the claims against a group of energy producers. The Delaware state court judge held claims over interstate and international carbon emissions from the Attorney General’s lawsuit, filed in that state, are preempted by the Clean Air Act.

While federal courts have consistently found climate lawsuits lack legal foundation, the Delaware decision is the first instance of a state court issuing this type of decision.

The Delaware decision underscores what should be an obvious point: Municipal governments should focus on our actual responsibilities, such as cleaning our streets, fighting potential crime and encouraging local investment, rather than getting swept up in baseless litigation against those who produce the energy we use and demand every single day.

Even the White House defines municipal leaders as those who “take responsibility for parks and recreation services, police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, municipal courts, transportation services (including public transportation) and public works (streets, sewers, snow removal, signage, and so forth).”

As Mayor of North Arlington, I take my responsibilities very seriously and know firsthand that municipal governments are incredibly important.

While local leaders should do everything possible to encourage responsible environmental stewardship, our obligations do not — and should not include — diving into the complex area of global climate change.

It is totally impossible to prove a true causal effect between a specific company’s production of fossil fuels and local climate change impacts. Claiming such is no more than recklessness, a fact reinforced by multiple federal court opinions.

Greenhouse gas emissions are global, which the most recent Delaware dismissal made sure to note. Judge Mary Johnston said: “Claims in this case seeking damages for injuries resulting from out-of-state or global emissions and interstate pollution are pre-empted by the CAA. Thus, these claims are beyond the limits of Delaware common law.”

She went on to note that: “Damages caused by air pollution, limited to state-owned property, may be difficult to isolate and measure.”

If local leaders are seeking financial resources to cover the cost of climate change, there’s already money on the table to help with infrastructure recovery from climate and weather-related damages.

Significant federal funds that are earmarked for infrastructure damages have gone completely untouched.

For example:  As noted in recent years by former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, Rhode Island has used only $6.1 million of the $17 million grant that was allocated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for weather-related infrastructure damage. This is simply bad governance.

Beyond that, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted by Congress and signed by the president set aside $550 billion for new investments in infrastructure, including “environmental remediation,” among other things. Communities across New Jersey should apply for this funding and build better roads, bridges and general infrastructure.

It is bad enough some have chosen to waste tax dollars on litigation that people will not feel in a positive way, but these lawsuits could, and most likely will create higher costs for consumers.

Should these energy producers lose and be forced to pay millions of dollars, they will more than likely pass these new costs onto families and businesses through rises in energy prices. Even worse, these lawsuits could actually divert resources away from the pragmatic solutions we are being instructed to implement in an effort to help mitigate potential climate change.

I concur with my friend and neighboring Mayor Michael Melham, of Belleville, as he recently pointed out climate lawsuits will only increase expenses and create obstacles for clean energy. This is both unfortunate and counterproductive, especially with New Jersey setting such implausible goals of 100% clean energy by 2035.

The reality is that suing energy producers will not get us any closer to that goal.

The writer, Daniel H. Pronti, is the Mayor of North Arlington.

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Daniel H. Pronti | North. Arlington Mayor