By Olivia Colangelo, Student Writer

Proposed legislation in multiple states in the Northeast aims to create an accountability structure that allocates costs of climate damages to companies involved in the fossil fuel supply chain. One of the states engaged in the proposed legislation is Vermont. Vermont was hit hard by record flooding in the summer of 2023 and it is one state (along with its neighbor New York) that is considering legislation that would mirror CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act). CERCLA which was a federal mandate “forced those responsible for these messes to clean them up or pay the government to do so.” CERCLA was born out of Superfund legislation which is linked to two key public crises of the past. First, the 1998 settlement required $206 billion to be provided by Big Tobacco in support of public health as well as similar legal proceedings related to toxic spills and hazardous waste dumping of the 1980s.

While the idea that companies should bear the financial burden for the environmental damage caused by their activities is expected to garner broad support, it is unclear how the new legislation would quantify accountability for fossil fuel companies in their role in climate change. The direct connection between climate change created by fossil fuel companies and the impact of that change on communities such as the devastation caused by flooding may not be easily drawn or quantified. An oil spill, for example, can be attributed and its impact in the short term is always measurable. Climate change may not lend itself to such clear metrics and  “carbon pollution may prove even more elusive — since it’s atmospheric, it’s diffuse through the air and not concentrated anywhere.” The lack of a direct link between environmental damage and climate change related to fossil fuels will blur the lines between accountability and make the legislation proposed by states such as Vermont a potential battle. Nonetheless, accountability is critical for all involved parties as communities have little recourse other than state-provided relief.

The fossil fuel industry centered around Big Oil will likely put up a fight against such a proposal. Advocates of the legislation should look to precedents from the 80’s and 90’s. Presumably, there was broad support against Big Tobacco and hazardous waste dumping and the growing popularity of eco-friendly alternatives such as electric vehicles is certainly likely to garner broad support for similar legislation related to climate change. While the concerns start in small communities, they could quickly extend to the state and national level. Perhaps, we could even see a trend at the global level. While the companies are different and the communities have changed, the essence of the issues remains the same. The core topic is holding corporations responsible. In addition to public health benefits, revisions in favor of minimizing climate change would support a transition to a more sustainable energy future.