B.C.’s rural municipalities warn Victoria not to forget ‘resource roots’ as city eyes lawsuit against Big Oil

CALGARY – A fight over whether or not to launch a class action lawsuit against oil companies is exposing the urban/rural divide in British Columbia.

“We have a healthy, thriving oil and gas industry because you guys are demanding it downstream,” said Lori Ackerman, mayor of 20,000-person Fort St. John, B.C. about the communities in the province’s Lower Mainland.

Ackerman said communities like hers in northeastern B.C. and the natural resources produced there are “out of sight, out of mind” for people in the province’s larger population centres such as metro Vancouver and Victoria, who have “completely forgotten their resource roots,” and that the province still runs on natural resource extraction and exports.

The division between municipalities in the interior of the province and on the southern part of the coast came into sharp relief at the Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting last week.

Ackerman put forward a motion at the meeting calling on the association to “recognize the value of B.C.’s resource sector” even as it is moving toward a lower carbon economy. The motion passed, albeit with a few amendments that recognized the need to support workers.

Surprisingly, her motion also included a preamble that was critical of plans by other municipalities to sue oil companies, describing such a move as “not an appropriate direction for B.C. municipalities.”

At the UBCM, preambles to motions are not adopted as policy. But Ackerman’s preamble stands in stark contrast to the next two motions put forth at the association’s meeting that sought to pressure the B.C. provincial government to support municipalities suing oil companies. Neither of those motions were adopted.

The City of Victoria withdrew its motion calling on the UBCM to “explore the initiation of a class action lawsuit on behalf of member local governments to recover costs arising from climate change from major fossil fuel corporations.”

A similar motion from the City of Port Moody, a bedroom community outside Vancouver, was rejected. It had called upon the B.C. government “to enact legislation that holds fossil fuel companies financially liable for climate-related harms by their contributions to climate change.”

Legislation would help expedite litigation against global fossil fuel companies but legislation is not necessary

Ben Isitt, Victoria city councillor

Victoria city councillor Ben Isitt said that motion was defeated because of the division between major cities in south-eastern B.C. and smaller municipalities in the interior of the province. He said there are 162 municipalities in the province and 75 per cent of the population lives in just 10 per cent of those municipalities.

Despite the motion being voted down, he said some municipalities are still looking to sue oil companies.

“Legislation would help expedite litigation against global fossil fuel companies but legislation is not necessary,” Isitt said.

He added that Victoria withdrew its motion because the “first step” in the process is doing “a proper and rigorous analysis” of a potential case against the oil companies and added that law firm Arvay Finlay LLP is working an the analysis.

Vancouver-based Arvay Finlay recently represented the province in its case before the B.C. Supreme Court on whether it could restrict shipments of bitumen or other heavy oil products from Alberta. The B.C. Court of Appeal issued a unanimous ruling in May that the province could not.

The city has also been advised by its own lawyers on whether such a case could be pursued, but neither Isitt nor a city spokesperson would comment on the legal opinion. “I can’t disclose privileged legal advice from the city’s own lawyers,” Isitt said.

We don’t have the option of not putting pressure on higher levels of government to … limit the amount of climate change we’re going to be experiencing

Rob Vagramov, mayor of Port Moody

Isitt said the adoption of the motion from Fort St. John and the withdrawal/rejection of the motions on climate litigation is not a sign that cities and towns in the province are moving to support the oil and gas industry.

For evidence, he pointed to numerous other motions adopted at the UBCM on climate change issues, including a motion that was adopted calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies.

Rob Vagramov, mayor of Port Moody, said his community is still interested in putting pressure on the B.C. government to support climate litigation and other methods to reduce emissions and help B.C. communities cope with a changing climate.

“We don’t have the option of not putting pressure on higher levels of government to do everything in their power to reduce and to limit the amount of climate change that we’re going to be experiencing,” Vagramov said.

Cities and towns have their own culpability in any climate change action, as municipal governments have built and permitted infrastructure — like roads, boat jetties and airports — that enable the combustion of hydrocarbons in increasing quantities, said Stewart Muir, executive director of Resource Works, a group that advocates for natural resource development in B.C. Ackerman is a member of Resource Works’ advisory council.

“I think you see a double standard and it’s present in every municipality,” Muir said of attempts to launch a class action lawsuit against oil companies, adding that 80 per cent of emissions occur at the point of consumption rather than extraction.

“They should start to sue themselves,” he said.

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