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Oregon’s Multnomah County Sues Fossil Fuel Companies Seeking $50M for Purported “Heat Dome” Heatwaves

Oregon’s most populous county, and home to Portland, sued more than a dozen oil, gas, and coal companies for over $50 million in damages related to a 2021 “heat dome” the county alleges was caused by the defendants’ contributions to climate change.

Multnomah County, which filed the civil suit in June, is also seeking no less than $1.5 billion from the defendants to pay for potential damage from future extreme heat events, and another $50 billion to study, plan, and protect people and Oregon’s infrastructure from extreme heat.

In the massive, 200-plus page complaint prepared and filed by three plaintiffs’ firms, the Oregon county alleges the defendants contributed to a significant portion of the greenhouse gas emissions between 1965 and 2023 in both direct emissions from their extraction and refining, and end use of their products. The named defendants include Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Motiva, Occidental Petroleum, Space Age Fuel, Valero Energy, Total Specialties, Marathon Petroleum, Peabody Energy, Koch Industries, the American Petroleum Institute, the Western States Petroleum Association and McKinsey and Company. 

In late June 2021, a historic heatwave affected Oregon and the greater Pacific Northwest and broke multiple high-temperature records. During the 2021 event, Portland International Airport exceeded 100 degrees for three consecutive days — 108 degrees on June 26, 112 degrees on June 27, and 116 degrees on June 28. The previous record high at the airport was 107 degrees, making June 28 a remarkable nine degrees warmer. This heat wave became popularly known as the “Heat Dome,” a term referring to a hot air mass that develops under a large area of high pressure in the upper part of the atmosphere and contributes to heatwaves. Sadly, the heat dome resulted in the deaths of 69 people. Similar heatwaves occurred in 2022 and 2023.

Oregon’s complaint asserts the named defendants are liable for negligence, both negligent and intentional creation of a public nuisance, and fraud and misrepresenting to the public for decades that burning fossil fuels would not contribute to climate change and extreme weather events. The complaint also includes a trespassing claim, arguing that Multnomah County never consented to the defendants intruding onto its property and causing damage from fire, smoke, water, or “intense heat.”

In a statement, Roger Worthington, a partner at Worthington & Caron P.C., one of the three firms representing the county, stated county leaders are using “irrefutable climate science to hold corporate polluters accountable.”

“We are confident that, once we show what the fossil fuel companies knew about global warming and when, and what they did to deny, delay, and deceive the public, the jury will not let the fossil fuel companies get away with their reckless misconduct,” Worthington added.

The “irrefutable science” referenced by Worthington is undoubtedly the several attribution studies that were published after Oregon’s heat dome. One of these studies found that the extreme temperatures recorded in June 2021 would have been “virtually impossible” without the effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, some of which comes from the burning of fossil fuels.

Later, after this lawsuit was filed, one of the lead defendants, Chevron Corporation, through a spokesman, responded to the complaint. Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., a partner at Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher, who represents Chevron, told local news outlets that, “addressing the challenge of global climate change requires a coordinated policy response. These lawsuits are counterproductive distractions from advancing international policy solutions. The federal Constitution bars these novel, baseless claims that target one industry and group of companies engaged in lawful activity that provides tremendous benefits to society.”

Multnomah County’s lawsuit has much in common with a lawsuit filed earlier this year against ENI, Italy’s largest energy company, by Italian citizens for allegedly hiding the harmful effects of the use of fossil fuels in their community since 1970. It also follows at least dozens of other lawsuits filed by U.S. cities and local governments seeking to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for extreme weather events that have allegedly been exacerbated by climate change.

Time will tell if this lawsuit meets similar treatment of these prior lawsuits, which often have often been long delayed for years, as fossil fuel companies have argued that because pollution is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, these types of cases should be tried in federal court.