Wasteful litigation ignores Lowcountry’s climate needs

June 25, 2024

By Tom Swatzel

In 2020, the mayor of Charleston filed a lawsuit against several energy producers, including a local company based here in South Carolina, over climate change. The suit was announced on the third anniversary of Hurricane Irma—a scene pulled from the playbook of environmental foundations and deep-pocketed trial lawyers who have been staging similar events around the country as part of their political campaign against certain types of energy. Their goal is to make oil and gas unaffordable for us to use.

Over the past few years, it has become clear that this lawsuit is not about what’s best for the people of Charleston or, frankly, any community. It is about national climate politics, pure and simple. We now have the proof.

Climate activists and trial lawyers have been selling the litigation to local officials for years by saying that suing energy companies is a way to get money. In fact, the former Charleston mayor went on national TV and boasted that this case, from his perspective, was “a money grab”—a way to fund climate mitigation in Charleston. But for every dollar Charleston might get—which would be years away if it ever were to actually happen—a large portion of it would go to the environmentalists and trial lawyers—not climate mitigation here in Charleston.

A new report by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) exposed this ploy. It found that if “the goal here is to obtain funding for environmental mitigation efforts, there are better alternatives to do so that would not impose severe economic harm.”

The report details that in 2021, when Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, it allocated $525 billion of federal funding to repair and build critical infrastructure, including more than $41 billion dedicated specifically to resiliency and mitigation. The NTUF study found, however, that only $9.2 billion of that pot has been obligated, and only $224 million has been spent.

Of particular importance to Lowcountry residents, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized $3.5 billion for its Flood Mitigation Assistance Program, but only $205,080 of that money has been spent so far. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has authorized $7 billion to strengthen infrastructure, but none of those funds have been spent to date.

“Tapping into these funds would be a better way of addressing the problems that ostensibly led to the lawsuits against energy manufacturers,” the NTUF analysis states. “Congress has no doubt provided additional related environmental remediation and mitigation programs elsewhere across the vast and overlapping array of federal programs.”

Lowcountry residents would be much better served if their elected officials applied for these federal funds, specifically dedicated to climate resiliency and mitigation, rather than pursue political litigation designed to make energy more expensive.

The fact is that climate litigation will have a huge cost on everyone who puts gas in the car or relies on these fuels for electricity, air conditioning, or to power their businesses. The true goal of these activist groups, as the lead counsel in a Colorado climate case told a radio station there, is to “raise the price of the products” so they become too expensive to use. Most people cannot afford to spend more on their daily energy needs as the prices of many products are already too high.

The NTUF’s study also found that this litigation would worsen everything: “higher energy and transportation costs would directly increase prices for many goods, products, commodities, and services throughout the economy… The impacts would be very regressive on purchasing power and employment opportunities.” There is no reason to put everyday consumers in the line of fire of the activists’ climate lawsuit agenda.

There’s no doubt that climate policy is critically important, but the debate over climate policy should happen in the daylight of our policymaking channels—including legislative hearings—and be subject to the checks and balances of the legislative process. These decisions should not be made behind courtroom doors. If elected officials really need to prepare our communities for rising tides, hurricanes, and more frequent and severe storms, they should go through the appropriate channels.

Mayor Cogswell has pledged to put commonsense and common ground ahead of activist dogma. That’s great news. It’s time to focus the city’s resources where they can make a real impact on Lowcountry residents. And it’s now clear that the answer is not to pursue litigation intended to drive up energy use costs for people like us. For the sake of everyday consumers and families, we hope common sense prevails.


About the Author

Tom Swatzel, a resident of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, is actively involved in the local GOP. With experience serving on the Georgetown County Council and as Chairman of the Georgetown, SC GOP, Swatzel is a well-established political figure in the region.