How one Oregon county plans to make big oil pay for the 2021 heat dome

By Jeffrey B. Simon | May 10, 2024

The extent of the 2021 heatwave can be seen in this map, which shows the land surface temperature of parts of Canada and the US on June 29. (Credits: contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2021), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

In June 2021, Multnomah County, Oregon, experienced the most extreme heat event in its history. A “heat dome” settled over the county, trapping hot air in the region for nearly a week. Over three consecutive days, temperatures in Multnomah reached highs of 108 degrees Fahrenheit, then 112 degrees, and finally 116 degrees. Temperatures in inner city Portland reached 124 degrees (51.5 degrees Celsius). All of those high temperatures exceeded those of any day in any previous year in the county, ever.

Nearly 40 percent of the county’s residents had no cooling systems in their homes, because they never before needed them. (The average high temperature in Multnomah in June is in the 70s.) Sixty-nine people died of heat stroke, most of them inside their homes. It was so hot that the metal cables of cable cars literally melted.

In his book, The Heat Will Kill You First, Jeff Goodell explains that as temperatures rose, some of the most sun-exposed trees opened their pores, desperately trying to cool off by sweating. He notes that as roots worked to pull water out of the dry soil, they instead sucked air bubbles into their veins that ran up their trunks, causing them to rupture. “If you’d had the right kind of microphone, scientists say, you could have heard the trees screaming,” Goodell writes.

This was not a natural weather event. In the aftermath of this catastrophe, several scientific studies were conducted, all of which reached the same conclusion: This heat dome was caused by fossil fuel pollution that superheated our planet’s surface, dried out the region’s soil, and intensified a high-pressure system, turning Multnomah County into a convection oven.

Last year, our law firm and our co-counsel filed a lawsuit on behalf of Multnomah County against several leading fossil fuel producers, sellers, and industry insiders: Exxon Mobil, 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.

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We contend in the case that this catastrophe was not caused by an act of God, but rather by the world’s largest energy companies playing God with the lives of innocent and vulnerable people by selling as much oil, gas, and coal as they could while lying about and concealing how much harm pollution from those products would likely cause American communities.

We know from internal corporate documents that some of the oil companies and industry trade groups we sued understood more than 50 years ago that the carbon emissions from the fossil fuel products they sold were polluting the atmosphere at a high rate and would cause the surface temperature of the Earth to substantially rise.

We intend to prove that over 40 years ago, the fossil fuel industry knew that by the early 21st century, the increase in global temperature from their polluting products would cause appreciable changes in regional weather and that no later than the year 2030, some of the weather changes would be catastrophic.

Yet, we allege, they deliberately misled the American public that the science on those matters was unclear, unproven, and that therefore no action should be taken to restrict their product sales or moderate their pollution.

Because of the heat dome, Multnomah County was forced to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in emergency healthcare, social services, and to repair infrastructural damage. The county is seeking $50 million to cover damages from the extreme heat event. Scientific studies have determined that heat domes like this one will strike the county with greater frequency and intensity because the atmospheric carbon pollution that caused it is increasing. The county is seeking another $1.5 billion to cover damages it will incur from future extreme heat events before significant measures can be implemented to reduce harm.

In addition, the county expects it will cost no less than $50 billion to design and build the infrastructure necessary to withstand this extreme heat, provide cooling units and heat shelter for all inhabitants who can’t afford them, and implement the emergency response systems necessary to save lives. The county wants to make fossil fuel companies pay for an abatement fund to cover those costs.

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We contend that oil and coal companies caused this devastation, and did so with the help of spin doctors (such as industry trade groups, public relations firms, and front groups posing as objective observers) to mislead the public as to the likelihood and gravity of impending environmental harm. We believe the key wrongdoers must answer for their conduct and be held financially accountable for it in a court of law.

Multnomah County filed suit on June 23, 2023, against more than a dozen fossil fuel-producing companies and other oil industry insiders, claiming negligence, trespass, fraud, and creation of public nuisance, for their alleged roles in causing enormous harm to the county. In response, the defendants filed a Notice of Removal to ask the case to be moved from state court to a federal district court. This is a common industry litigation tactic because it creates significant delay in getting to the merits of the case even if the removal effort ultimately fails. Multnomah County countered with a Motion to Remand, asking the case to be considered in the state court in which it was filed.

US District Court Magistrate Youlee Yim You then set a schedule for the parties to submit written arguments on the matter and a date for oral hearing.

In February, the parties argued the merits of the Remand motion before Magistrate You. Last month, Magistrate You recommended that the Federal District judge return the case to state court because the defendants failed to meet their burden to prove that a federal district court had jurisdiction over the matter. The decision is now with a Federal District Court Judge.

We look forward to the time when a jury will decide these matters and deliver a resounding verdict. That day will come, and we will be ready for it, no matter how long it takes. Justice demands it.


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Bill Prescott
Bill Prescott
16 days ago

The oil companies could not have provided the oil if they had not received payments from the customers. Therefore it is the customers who are ultimately responsible for any damages. Make them pay for the problem they made possible.

Whitewater Oregon
Whitewater Oregon
9 days ago
Reply to  Bill Prescott

Hang on there! Throughout the past 50 years a stealth campaign has been waged by these very companies and their highly paid “think tanks” to disinform and dissuade the consumer, and organize Astro-Turf (fake grassroots) movements like the Tea Party, and you get a former president among others shouting “burn, baby burn!” and “drill, baby, drill!” Well, the disasters have come home to roost––and will continue to do so for decades if not centuries. Naturally, those most responsible now wish to dump responsibility on credulity and ignorance of the American public. Well, who fought the environmentalist public every step of… Read more »

msueh
msueh
16 days ago

Big whoop. If they have a chance of winning the lawsuit, the cost to the company/ies will just be passed on to us, the consumer; company/ies would lose nada, CEOS gotta keep their big paychecks, ya know. And fwiw, I live in WA – in the middle of that weirdly-shaped almost circular dark red spot in the center of WA. It was HOT; I was glad for my in-ground basement, which stayed cooler. Unimpressed with this report.

Wayne Allen
Wayne Allen
16 days ago

I intensely dislike the petroleum industry as much as anyone, but to suggest that cable car cables “literally melted” makes the whole article appear inaccurate and ridiculous. The steel that comprises those cables has to be hotter than 1500f degrees to melt. Stretching due to excessive heat? Sure, melting? No way.

Whitewater Oregon
Whitewater Oregon
9 days ago
Reply to  Wayne Allen

These aren’t “cable cars” pulled by underground cables rotating on pullies as in San Francisco’s old town. These are street cars powered by overhead pantographs connecting to electrified contacts overhead, much like the electric trolleys seen in other parts of SF. When the charged wires sag and come into contact with hot metal, they can indeed soften and break in the extreme heat of the heat dome? Did they melt to the point of liquefaction? As seen here, they clearly didn’t need to.
https://www.npr.org/2021/06/29/1011269025/photos-the-pacific-northwest-heatwave-is-melting-power-cables-and-buckling-roads