California can make climate polluters pay for the mess they have made of Earth

As climate change exacts a mounting toll on California, who should pay for the damage from rising sea levels and increasingly ferocious wildfires, floods and heat waves?

Fossil fuel companies would like taxpayers to keep footing the bill while they reap the profits from the burning of coal, oil and methane gas. That’s not right. Companies whose products are responsible for the vast majority of the greenhouse gas emissions should be held liable for the costs.

That’s the concept behind the Polluters Pay Climate Cost Recovery Act, a bill in the California Legislature that would create a Superfund-style program to collect money from major fossil fuel companies such as Chevron and ExxonMobil to help the state pay for the environmental damage caused by their products.

Other states, including New York, Massachusetts and Maryland, are considering similar “Climate Superfund” bills. They’re modeled on the 1980 federal Superfund law that established an industry-funded trust fund to pay for cleaning abandoned hazardous waste sites and holds current and past operators and other responsible parties liable for the costs. California would not be the first to act; Vermont lawmakers earlier this month sent a Climate Superfund bill to their governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 1497, by Sen. Caroline Menjivar (D-Panorama City), rightly focuses on the world’s largest fossil fuel companies on the grounds that they are responsible for much of the climate impacts California is experiencing and paying for today.

The fund would come from the estimated 41 fossil fuel extraction and refining companies that meet the bill’s threshold of being responsible for more than 1 billion metric tons of emissions from 2000 to 2020. Each would pay a share of the climate costs to the state based on a study to be conducted by the California Environmental Protection Agency. The total cost recovery could amount to tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars, according to legislative analysts, and could be paid in installments over 20 years.

It may sound like a lot, but even that would not fully offset the costs climate-related damages California is expected to suffer for years to come from just those two decades of pollution. Wildfires alone have caused tens of billions in destruction of property, health costs and other losses in California in just the past few years.

The new climate fund, supporters say, could pay for everything from seawall construction and zero-emission vehicles to forest and wetlands restoration and wildfire fighting costs. A new approach to addressing climate hazards is also warranted given the precariousness of California’s roller coaster-like budget, which Menjivar, the bill’s author, said demonstrates that “we need creative solutions to relieve taxpayers of this burden.”

Just a few years after Gov. Gavin Newsom boasted about setting aside $54 billion to fight climate change, state lawmakers are now facing a $45-billion budget deficit and planning to cut billions from those same climate programs. The state’s other big source of climate funding, the cap-and-trade program, has raised more than $27 billion over the last decade but is designed to generate less revenue as emissions decline.

Oil companies have posted some of their best-ever profits in recent years so it’s no surprise that the fossil industry and business trade groups are opposing the bill to keep raking in money at the planet and the public’s expense. But it’s time for them to sacrifice some of their huge profits to clean up the environmental mess they helped create. It’s not fair for taxpayers to shoulder such a staggering burden.

Passing this bill won’t be easy as it requires a two-thirds vote and stalled earlier this week. But there is still time to move this legislation. Doing so would show that California is serious about responding to the climate crisis in a fiscally responsible way, without saddling all of the costs on regular people. It’s also a chance for state lawmakers, including so-called moderate Democrats who have a history of bending to the oil industry (which is one of the top spenders on lobbyists in Sacramento), to demonstrate that they will put the health and well-being of California residents before the short-term profit interests of polluters.