Multnomah County sues fossil fuel companies, citing deadly 2021 heat dome

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Multnomah County has filed a lawsuit seeking billions in damages from 17 of the largest fossil fuel companies over the 2021 heat dome.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Multnomah County Circuit Court, alleges that the companies and trade groups played a substantial role in creating the conditions that lead to Portland seeing record-setting temperatures over the course of three days in June of 2021.

Temperatures peaked at 116 degrees in Portland, more than 40 degrees above the norm for that time of year. Nearly 70 people died of heat-related illnesses in Multnomah County alone and hundreds more were admitted to area hospitals.

“With this action, we seek to hold these fossil fuel companies accountable for the damages that have arisen from one of the most deadly and destructive human-made weather disasters in American history,” said Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson.

The suit names 17 defendants: Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Motiva, Occidental Petroleum, Anadarko Petroleum, Space Age Fuel, Valero Energy, Total Specialties USA, Marathon Petroleum, Peabody Energy, Koch Industries, American Petroleum Institute, Western States Petroleum Association, and McKinsey & Company.

The suit seeks $50 million in damages arising from the 2021 heat dome itself and another $1.5 billion in future damages.

In addition to monetary damages, the county is also seeking an estimated $50 billion abatement fund in the lawsuit. The fund would be used to “study, plan, and upgrade the public health care services and infrastructure that will be reasonably necessary to ‘weatherproof’ the County from future extreme heat events and to safeguard the public health.”

“The climate crisis is already costing us money today and will cost us more money in the future as we try to adapt,” Vega Pederson said. “We are not looking for a payout. We are looking to be paid back.”

Nearly two dozen other cities, counties and states have brought legal action against fossil fuel companies. Few of those cases have yet made it to trial.

RELATED: Washington County one of 14 sites selected for federal heat island study

But Roger Worthington, one of the attorneys representing the county in the case, said this lawsuit has some key differences.

Soon after the heat dome, climate attribution experts, who explore the link between weather phenomena and climate change, looked to see how carbon dioxide emissions could have influenced the dangerous heat.

One group found that the temperatures seen in Portland would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change and that carbon dioxide emissions made the heat dome 150 times more likely to occur.

“What is new about this case is how the leadership of Multnomah County is utilizing irrefutable climate science to hold corporate polluters accountable for their role in causing a discreet and disastrous event, as well as recent wildfires,” Worthington, a partner at Worthington & Caron, PC, said in a statement.

Worthington was realistic about the timeline for the lawsuit, though, noting that defendants are well known for delaying litigation.

“They’re not going to want to be here,” Worthington said to a crowd of boisterous supporters outside the Multnomah County Courthouse. “They’re going to delay this thing out — you mark my words, they are masters at delay and deflection — but we will work tirelessly on your behalf.”

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