As the two-year anniversary of the historic and deadly 2021 Pacific Northwest heat dome approaches, Multnomah County leaders are gearing up to hold big oil companies responsible.

The 2021 event, which lasted from June 24 through 29, 2021, saw temperatures in Portland reach an unprecedented high of 116 degrees. The remarkable heat event resulted in the deaths of 69 people in Multnomah County due to hyperthermia—with loss of life taking place throughout the entire Pacific Northwest. 

Most who died lived alone, without air conditioning, official reports noted. 

On Thursday, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners acknowledged the anniversary by unanimously agreeing to file a lawsuit against several large fossil fuel corporations for their role in climate change that led to the catastrophic heat wave. The county will seek $50 million in actual damages and $1.5 billion in future damages from the defendants, as well as an abatement fund estimated at $50 billion to "study, plan, and upgrade the public health care services and infrastructure" necessary to protect residents during future historic weather events caused by climate change.

After the vote, county commissioners were met with support from Portland climate activists, who have long been calling on local governments to use their power to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. 

Multnomah County has named 17 companies as defendants in the suit, including Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Koch Industries, American Petroleum Institute, and McKinsey & Company. 

"These companies have known their products were harmful for decades, but we are the ones literally paying the consequences. We say the fossil fuel industry, along with their trade associations, need to pay for the impacts of their pollution," Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said at a press conference immediately following the county board vote. "Today, we say enough is enough." 

Vega Pederson at the press conference. (Taylor Griggs)

The county will be represented by three law firms retained as outside legal counsel: Worthington & Caron, PC, Simon Greenstone Panatier, PC, and Portland-based Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost. According to the county, each firm specializes in "large-scale catastrophic harm litigation." 

By filing this lawsuit, Multnomah County joins other governments across the country in attempting to take legal recourse against oil companies. According to the Center for Climate Integrity, seven states, 35 municipalities and the District of Columbia are all suing major oil and gas corporations to "end their deception and make polluters pay for climate damages they knowingly caused." Multnomah County's lawsuit will be unique, however, because it stems from a particular event with measurable fatalities and damages.

Scientists determined the 2021 heat dome was a very rare event that was made worse because of human-caused climate change. And the burning of fossil fuels is to blame.

“The scientific consensus is clear that the extraction, refining and combustion of fossil fuels are primarily responsible for the warming that is accelerating global climate change,” a resolution authorizing the Multnomah County litigation states. 

After the Multnomah County Board Meeting, commissioners joined climate activists on a march across the Hawthorne Bridge. Commissioners and activists alike carried signs reading "Multnomah County vs. Big Oil."

Climate advocates showing their support. (Taylor Griggs)

Local climate advocates say they're pleased with the board's decision. Some state officials have also chimed in with their support for the lawsuit.

“The fossil fuel industry’s legacy of knowingly polluting and wreaking havoc on Oregon and the rest of the planet is beyond abhorrent. Not only do these companies need to pay for the harm they’ve already caused, but they must front the resources for our resilience and adaptation efforts moving forward," Oregon Representative Mark Gamba (D-Milwaukie) said in a press release written by climate justice advocacy organization Breach Collective. "I applaud the County for this brave and forward thinking action and encourage other jurisdictions as well as the state to follow suit.” 

Nick Caleb, a climate and energy attorney at Breach Collective, led the effort to organize a rally after Thursday's landmark vote. He applauded county officials for their work filing the lawsuit.

“This lawsuit is unique in that it seeks to hold big fossil fuel companies and their corporate allies directly accountable for the harm and destruction of the heat dome event of 2021, and to make them pay for future expected harms we will experience from climate change," Caleb said. "This action is consistent with Multnomah County’s continual efforts over the last decade to protect the public from the many risks the fossil fuel industry poses to public health and the environment.” 

But commissioners recognize money can't undo the damage already done by global warming and its consequences.

“No amount of money is going to bring back those lives,” Commissioner Shusheela Jayapal said before voting to authorize the litigation. However, she said it's still worth holding big oil companies to task. “They need to be held accountable and I’m very proud… that Multnomah County is taking this step.”

While litigation will likely take years to resolve, attorneys on the case are so confident they can win, they aren't charging the county unless a settlement or judgement is awarded. 

"We will show that the normal use of fossil fuel products over time has imposed massive external, unpriced and untraded social, economic and environmental costs on the county. We will show that they were aware of this price, and instead of fully informing the public, they deceived us," said attorney Roger Worthington, a partner at Worthington & Caron, PC. “We are confident that once we show what the fossil fuel companies knew about global warming and when and what they did to deny, delay and deceive the public, the jury will not let the fossil fuel companies get away with their reckless misconduct.”