When the rolling eyes and giggles that greeted news of New York City’s lawsuit against five oil and gas supermajors had subsided, the energy industry faced a serious question: Is this something to worry about?

“This is the kind of thing that has to get shut down quickly because if it doesn’t then you’re talking potentially, literally every municipality in the country joining in,” Houston energy litigator John Zavitsanos told Hart Energy. “The one thing we know about most governmental entities is they’re always underfunded. They’re always looking for a way to increase their tax revenue without raising taxes.”

In fact, on Jan. 23 the San Francisco suburb of Richmond filed a similar suit against Chevron Corp. and other oil companies, becoming the ninth U.S. city to take such action.

Zavitsanos, partner at AZA, compared New York City’s climate change action to suits against the fast-food industry and the U.S. Department of Justice’s racketeering lawsuit against several major tobacco companies in 1999. The tobacco companies were found liable for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act in 2006, a decision that was upheld on appeal in 2009.

The first obvious difference, as BP’s CEO Bob Dudley told Amy Harder of Axios, is that people can choose not to smoke but they need energy. The second is that, while only a few companies controlled the tobacco market, blaming five companies for a global issue like climate change—which involves numerous factors—might seem unlikely to gain much traction in the courtroom.

But if the target audience is not just a jury but the general public, then this suit could inflict some damage on the industry.

“I think it’s probably 70% political, 30% Hail Mary,” Zavitsanos said. “The problem with this is that there are very objective standards in place through regulation, through legislation governing emissions and things of that sort. If the oil companies are all in compliance with those things, it’s very difficult to establish some sort of a claim. If they’re not compliant, then there potentially would be a claim there, but I think it’s probably mostly political.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the suit against BP Plc (NYSE: BP), Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX), ConocoPhillips Co. (NYSE: COP), ExxonMobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) and Royal Dutch Shell Plc (NYSE: RDS.A) on Jan. 10. The complaint maintains that the five companies should shoulder the cost of protecting city property from climate change-induced damage including inundation, erosion and regular tidal flooding.

The five companies are the world’s largest publicly owned producers of fossil fuels. The suit cites a 2014 article in the scientific journal Climatic Change that attaches responsibility to them collectively for 11% of all carbon and methane pollution from industrial sources since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Top 10 global companies in the research article not named in the suit include national oil companies Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, National Iranian Oil Co., Pemex and PDVSA. Gazprom is a joint-stock company just under 50% publicly owned.

New York City also alleges that the five companies conducted their own research and were aware that the fossil fuel products they produced would cause “a dire global warming problem” but disregarded their own internal scientific research to protect their market.

Two London-based analysts at Wood Mackenzie—Gavin Law, head of gas and power consulting; and Amy Bowe, director of upstream consulting—found holes in the suit. Among them: absolute emissions are not the most appropriate gauge.

“Instead, emissions intensity, which measures the amount of emissions released per barrel of oil and gas produced, controls for differences in size and provides a better benchmark by which to compare companies,” Law and Bowe wrote.

Many large oil and gas companies have higher or equal emissions intensities to the five supermajors named in the suit. But the Wood Mac analysts also noted their projections of decreasing emissions intensities for the companies over the next seven years. All five intend to:

  • Address flaring;
  • Implement other mitigation measures; and
  • Shift away from emissions-intensive resources such as oil sands (Shell and ConocoPhillips have sold their Canadian oil sands assets).

“It’s really easy to pick on the majors because they’re monolithic, they’re big and when crude prices are high then they make record amounts of profits so they’re very easy targets,” Zavitsanos said.

Zavitsanos believes the case has little chance of surviving summary judgment and will likely be dismissed. Still, he warns that the companies underestimate the plaintiffs at their own peril.

“They need to take it seriously and they need to come back at this full-throttle,” he said. “This is not the kind of thing that they could settle; not the kind of thing that they could make go away quietly because it never does go away quietly. No settlement is confidential—even the president is finding that out now. I think that my advice to them would be: put your foot on the gas and go, and come back very hard.”

Joseph Markman can be reached at jmarkman@hartenergy.com and @JHMarkman.