Kamala Harris’s persistent decade of duking it out with oil companies

From a legal perspective, the next four years should be a big deal for the climate cause in the US. A succession of climate cases are now working their way through American courts. And if US senator Kamala Harris, the former prosecutor and attorney general of California, enters the White House with Joe Biden next January, she’ll come with a plan to fight against fossil fuel companies — as she has for most of her career.

Oil and gas firms “are going to pay fines and they are going to pay fees,” Harris said during a CNN town hall for presidential candidates last September. “When you take away that money because you take them to court and sue them, as I have done, it’s extraordinary how they will change behaviors. They have to be held accountable.”

Since 2016, the Trump administration has made efforts to dismantle US climate legislation and buttress the fossil fuel industry. The non-partisan Brookings Institution counts 74 actions by the administration to weaken environmental protections. A climate shortlist includes the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, ending the Clean Power Plan, rolling back fuel emission standards, and lifting regulations on oil and gas exploration in the Alaskan wilderness. Almost all are being challenged in federal courts.

Harris’s opposition to fossil fuel companies has always been motivated by her conviction that climate impacts are visited disproportionately on minorities, said Leah Stokes, a political scientist with a climate focus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And in the last decade she’s racked up considerable experience confronting them in court.

“She’s grown more vocal on confronting the fossil fuel industry over time,” Stokes said.

Harris’s strategy for confronting the industry in court has relied on three key tactics: defending against challenges to clean air laws, cracking down on polluting equipment, and curbing the development of new infrastructure. Here’s how those tactics will likely inform how she would approach upcoming climate legal battles as vice president.

Defending clean air laws

During her campaign for California Attorney General in 2010, Harris was a vocal proponent of AB32, a landmark state climate law. Enacted in 2006, one of its accomplishments was laying the groundwork for the Golden State’s cap and trade system, which requires large polluters to cut their emissions or pay for offset credits.

Once in the AG’s office, it didn’t take long before Harris had to defend the law in court, in a case that would inch along for her seven-year tenure. Brought by a coalition of agricultural and fossil fuel trade groups, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Goldstene argued the law, which coudl extend to products made outside California, constituted an illegal barrier to interstate commerce. Harris, working alongside environmental groups, appealed the original ruling that sided with polluters.

In 2019, after Harris had moved on to the Senate, the appeals court upheld the law, handing her office a belated victory. California’s carbon trading market is now the world’s fourth largest and could be a model for a national carbon pricing scheme, which Harris has said she is open to.

Harris has also stood up for federal climate law, joining a group of other state AGs to intervene in lawsuits brought by coal-reliant states and power companies against the Obama administration EPA. That experience will likely come in handy if Biden were to undo Trump’s rollbacks to Clean Air Act regulations on the power sector — a move that would probably bring a fresh round of complaints from states that are lagging behind in their clean energy transition.

Cracking down on shoddy, polluting equipment

One of Harris’s first wins as district attorney for San Francisco’s bay area was to make Chevron pay a $24.5 million settlement over charges that the company had failed to properly maintain underground gasoline storage tanks, violating pollution laws. That kicked off a focus on equipment failures that proved to be Harris’s strongest weapon against fossil fuel companies.

Later, she obtained settlements from ConocoPhillips and BP over improperly maintained fuel storage tanks, plus more than $100 million in settlements related to oil spills from pipelines and ships. She also sued a gas company over methane from a leaky storage facility, and got $86 million out of Volkswagen after the company cheated emissions tests on some cars.

As a senator, Harris also filed an amicus brief in support of litigation charging several oil companies with creating a public nuisance (climate change) with their emissions. This strategy from her former DA office and its colleagues in Oakland mirrors the equipment crackdown in that it seeks to hold specific companies responsible for an environmental impact. But in the case of climate change, where attribution is murkier than an oil spill, this strategy hasn’t yet proven successful with other prosecutors.

If Harris ends up supporting state litigation as vice president, it could be with the Big Tobacco strategy that is now more in vogue: charging the companies with defrauding the public about the harms of its product.

Impeding fossil fuel infrastructure expansion

Harris, as AG, also worked to limit the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, including two new rail lines for carrying oil and expansion of a Chevron oil refinery near the San Francisco’s bay area. But this line of attack only escalated to litigation once, just before she joined the Senate. In 2016, she sued the Obama administration over plans to allow fracking off the California coast.

That suit has been tied up in court throughout the Trump administration. If Biden and Harris win, it will likely become moot: The pair have promised to ban fracking on all federal lands and waters. That might put her on the other side of future litigation over pipelines and other infrastructure: fending off lawsuits from aggrieved companies.

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