LOS ANGELES— A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered the oil industry this week to pay over $1.2 million in legal fees to Youth for Environmental Justice, the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity — and over $1 million to the city of Los Angeles — for bringing a retaliatory lawsuit against the groups.
The California Independent Petroleum Association, an oil-and-gas trade association, filed the SLAPP suit (“Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation”) after the groups won protection against neighborhood oil drilling from the city. In 2019 a California appeals court dismissed the oil industry’s suit as a baseless attack on the groups.
“This multimillion-dollar victory shows just how far the oil industry will go to try to intimidate the community groups fighting for their lives,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “We hope the large payout for these despicable tactics will help deter further attacks on people who are fighting to protect themselves from toxic oil industry pollution.”
Oil and gas drilling releases toxic chemicals known to cause a range of health problems, from asthma and headaches to a higher risk of cancer and reproductive harm.
Drilling sites in South Los Angeles and Wilmington, neighborhoods that are predominantly Black and Latino, are on average hundreds of feet closer to homes, schools and playgrounds than drilling sites in whiter neighborhoods.
“This win shows that justice is taking place, though the fees the oil industry is being forced to pay are a joke in comparison to the suffering that takes place day to day in our communities,” said Nalleli Cobo, an activist with the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition. “Whether it be physical, emotional, or economic, our people are being affected. This is the reality for millions of Angelenos. We’re not afraid to defend our rights and will continue to fight until our communities are healthy and safe.”
In 2015 the groups sued the city of Los Angeles for rubber-stamping oil projects in communities of color. They reached a settlement in 2016 after the city adopted new requirements for drilling applications to ensure compliance with state environmental review rules and protect vulnerable communities.
The oil-and-gas association then countersued the city and the groups, claiming they’d violated the petroleum association’s constitutional rights to due process ― a classic SLAPP suit intended to harass the groups and stop them from fighting for their rights.
During the course of the litigation, the association’s members included some of the world’s largest oil companies, including Exxon and Chevron, and some of California’s largest oil producers, such as California Resources Corporation and Aera Energy, as well as law firms that represent the companies.
The California Independent Petroleum Association’s Board Member Executive Committee also now includes Jason Marshall, a former high-level official at the state’s oil regulatory agency, infamous for his close ties to the industry he was supposed to be regulating.
In California, special legislation provides for dismissal of SLAPP suits because they are an insidious way of preventing people from advocating for important policy change. The legislation also specifies that SLAPP plaintiffs must pay successful defendants’ attorneys’ fees, as the court ordered here.
“This decision is payback for our years of wasted time and money battling the oil industry’s baseless attack,” said Ashley Hernandez with Youth for Environmental Justice. “We’re ready to get on with our work to protect our health and communities from toxic oil pollution. Now more than ever communities like Wilmington, California need to rise and resist rampant oil drilling because the power of community is unstoppable.”
“For too long, the oil industry has been allowed to drill at will and run roughshod over the rights of Californians,” said Siegel. “These brave youth leaders won a long legal battle, but it’s one they shouldn’t have had to fight. It’s past time for Gov. Newsom to protect our health and climate by stopping new permits for oil and gas wells and ending neighborhood drilling.”