Climate in Law

David Bookbinder, PIELC keynote speaker and panelist, talks climate legislation, climate change and Jordan Cove

Oregon House Republicans had just walked off the job at the Legislature when Eugene Weekly talked with David Bookbinder, chief counsel for the libertarian think tank in Washington D.C. called Niskanen Center. 

Part of the Niskanen’s job is to inform Republican lawmakers in Congress about climate change and action. Yes, libertarians are pushing for government action. 

Asked how he could help bridge the conversation around climate action in Salem, Bookbinder isn’t able to offer any tips. In his experience on Capitol Hill, he says Republicans understand the dangerous future of climate change and agree that the government should enact a carbon tax but won’t acknowledge it publicly because it would be political suicide.

“Political courage is not their stock and trade,” he says, adding that the GOP has “kowtowed” to President Donald Trump despite his authoritarian tendencies. “Don’t look to them for political spine on any issue.” 

Bookbinder is one of three keynote speakers for the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC), which runs Thursday, March 5, through Sunday, March 8, at the University of Oregon. He’s been an active legal thorn in the side of fossil fuel companies, leading three Colorado governments’ legal cases. Now he’s putting some energy toward the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas project, which he’ll talk about on a panel at PIELC. 

Bookbinder says the climate action Oregon Democrats are pursuing — cap and trade — is the second-best legislation out there. The most economically efficient way to address climate change and the greenhouse gas emitting industries is through carbon tax legislation, he says.

A carbon tax preserves the right of fossil fuel companies to emit greenhouse gases, but a tax would be factored into pricing to pay for the environmental costs of polluting, he says. 

“Ultimately, consumers would pay for it in the price of the fuel, and it would alter their behavior,” Bookbinder says. “If it doesn’t alter their behavior, it provides a financial remedy.”

What’s missing from the climate change conversation among lawmakers and policymakers, he says, is the need to fund local governments, which will be hit hard by climate change. He points to roads as an example. 

According to 2018 data from the federal Bureau of Transportation, 31 percent of all roads are unpaved. Bookbinder says for areas that might see more rain (like the Willamette Valley), dirt roads would be negatively impacted. And then there’s also an increased frozen-thaw cycles that would weather roads through expanding cracks in the asphalt. 

Since local governments will be on the hook for this, Bookbinder is a partner in a lawsuit in Colorado led by the city and county of Boulder and county of San Miguel against the fossil fuel companies ExxonMobil and Suncor. 

According to the filing, the energy companies are responsible for the plaintiffs’ injuries because they knew fossil fuel use would result in dangerous consequences, that companies contributed to greenhouse gas emissions and that they concealed and misrepresented to the public about what they knew about climate change and the dangers of continued fossil fuel use. 

Since the lawsuit was filed in 2018, eight local governments in California and one in New York City have also sued fossil fuel producers. 

Asked whether climate change-related lawsuits could be the new tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, Bookbinder says time will tell. If a legal theory is established, more governments could be filing lawsuits against fossil fuel companies. 

Legal action has two useful outcomes, Bookbinder says. One is to win the case; the other is to generate media and political attention. Sure, Julia Olson of Our Children’s Trust was in court to win, he adds, but Juliana v. United States was dead before filing. 

However, he says amount of attention the climate kids lawsuit received surpassed anyone’s “wildest dreams.”

“Its value for other things like focusing attention on the problem is enormous,” he says. “We all owe a debt of gratitude to Julia for this.”

While at PIELC, Bookbinder will also participate on a panel about the Jordan Cove LNG project. 

He says he’s representing some landowners on the Pacific Connecter route to Jordan Cove. He says he’s waiting for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) decision on the project on whether to pull the trigger on the fight. 

On Feb. 20, FERC voted 2-1 against Jordan Cove LNG. One of the commissioners voting to reject the project said the agency needed more time to review permit denials from the state of Oregon, and the other commissioner said the project is not in the public interest. 

Bookbinder says the project is screwing over property owners. Even if the project is implemented well and goes as planned, landowners are stuck with a huge pipeline running through their land and sometimes near their home, “screwing farmers’ ability to access their fields [and] homeowners’ ability to access their wells.” 

He says although companies are screwing over rural landowners with the project, they do have the right to take property. But executing legal action depends whether the “idiots at FERC give the go ahead.”

David Bookbinder’s keynote speech at PIELC is noon to 2 pm Friday, March 6. His panel on Jordan Cover LNG Pipeline is 4 pm Saturday, March 7. PIELC is located at Knight Law Center, 1221 University Street. FREE.