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Commentary Energy & Environment

Dels. Ruth & Terrasa: Give Md.’s AG the Tools to Hold Climate Polluters Accountable

Polluters
Pixabay.com photo by AllThingsCoastal.

By Dels. Sheila S. Ruth and Jennifer R. Terrasa

Ruth represents Baltimore County’s District 44B and Terrasa represents Howard County’s District 13 in the Maryland House of Delegates. Both are Democrats.

The climate crisis is not some distant future. It’s right here, right now, and taxpayers are already paying the price.

Recent flooding in Ellicott City, Annapolis, Dorchester County and other locations around Maryland have led to extensive damage, millions of dollars in lost revenue, and mitigation plans with price tags in the tens of millions of dollars.

It will only get worse. One study estimated that Maryland will need to spend $27 billion for seawalls by 2040 — just 18 years from now — to hold back the rising seas. The cost to Dorchester County alone will be $6.5 billion, about 100 times Dorchester County’s $66 million annual budget.

Flooding is only one consequence of the climate crisis. Severe heat, extreme storms and saltwater intrusion in Eastern Shore agriculture will all have economic costs in Maryland.

We cannot overlook the fact that the climate emergency we find ourselves in was not a foregone conclusion. Instead, it was created through decades of denial, deception and disinformation by fossil fuel executives who knew decades ago that their companies’ products would cause “catastrophic” damage, but then lied about it and spread climate denial. Their companies’ value soared while the rest of us paid the price.

Now we have a choice: force Maryland taxpayers to pay the tab for the mess these companies caused or make those big fossil fuel companies who caused and lied about the crisis pay their fair share.

We think it’s time to make the polluters pay.

As public officials, we have a duty to seek justice for our constituents. That’s why we and many of our colleagues are sponsoring legislation that would give Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh the resources his office needs to investigate the role that the biggest fossil fuel polluters have played in driving the climate emergency and take them to court to hold them accountable on behalf of all Maryland residents.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office has a proud history of holding bad actors accountable when they sell a dangerous product, lie about it and cause damage to the people of our state. When tobacco companies and opioid manufacturers provoked public health crises through their fraudulent and deceptive practices, Maryland’s attorney general took action and held them accountable in court.

There is strong evidence that major oil and gas companies have engaged in similar misconduct — with potentially even more disastrous consequences.

Members of the U.S. House Oversight Committee, including Rep. Jamie Raskin, are currently investigating the role that companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and BP played in “a long-running, industry-wide campaign to spread disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming.”

Meanwhile, seven attorneys general — including those in Delaware and Washington, D.C. — and 19 cities and counties — including Anne Arundel County and the cities of Baltimore and Annapolis — have taken some of these very same companies to court to hold them accountable for misleading consumers and to pay for the rising climate damages their products have caused.

It’s time for Maryland to take action on behalf of all state residents, and we believe Attorney General Frosh is the best person for this job. Our bill, HB363, would empower him to begin this work before he leaves office at the end of the year. At a February hearing in the Health and Government Operations Committee, Hannibal Williams II Kemerer, the legislative director for the attorney general, urged its passage, explaining that “it will permit us to hold the fossil fuel companies accountable.”

In the first nine months of 2021, oil companies made $174 billion in profits. That works out to $640 million a day, which means they make as much as Dorchester County’s entire annual budget in less than three hours. The fossil fuel industry must not be allowed to escape legal liability and pass off the extraordinary costs of its actions to the taxpayers.

We hope our colleagues will support HB363 to make sure our attorney general has the resources needed to get that job done.