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Pioneering Vermont Law Adds Momentum to Climate-Accountability Fight

Vermont's Climate Superfund Act is the latest in a growing wave of climate-driven political and legal attempts to hold the fossil-fuel industry accountable for its role in accelerating climate change.

In early May, Vermont lawmakers passed the landmark Climate Superfund Act — which aims to hold big fossil-fuel companies financially accountable for the emissions they produce, as it pertains to climate change.

In short, the Climate Superfund Act directs the state treasurer to work with climate scientists to catalog the damage Vermont has seen due to climate change between 1995 and 2024 — and what it will cost to adapt to a warmer future with more volatile weather — with Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources to “bill” the largest fossil-fuel companies for their share of climate-change costs proportional to their emissions in the state during that time period.

The law — which passed both chambers of Vermont’s legislature and entered into law without Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s signature — is modeled after the EPA’s Superfund program, which aims to hold companies responsible for major environmental cleanups across the country. Vermont’s State Treasurer’s office has until January 2026 to file a report detailing what climate change has cost the Green Mountain State; it’s unclear when (or if) Vermont will see a penny of damages, since the law is sure to be challenged.

It’s the latest in a series of ambitious, climate-driven political and legal endeavors to hold the fossil-fuel industry accountable for its role in accelerating climate change and a host of other environmental issues.

What sets Vermont’s bill apart is that it is the first tangible piece of climate-accountability legislation to become law. Tom Hughes, senior strategist at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group is a big proponent but expects legal challenges to follow.

“That ball will be in the fossil-fuel industry’s court, and they will have to challenge it,” he told Sustainable Brands®.

Tidal wave of legal action for climate accountability

The Vermont bill is preceded by several recent, notable pieces of climate litigation and legislation — which are now in similar states of limbo: Attorneys in the landmark 2023 Held v. Montana suit — in which the judge ruled in favor of 16 young plaintiffs who accused state officials of violating their constitutional rights to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting fossil fuels — are gearing up for a next phase in front of Montana’s Supreme Court; while Multnomah County, Oregon’s 2023 “heat dome” suit — in which the state’s most populous county sued 17 fossil-fuel companies for a deadly 2021 heat wave — was recently sent back to continue in Oregon Circuit Court.

Earlier this month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta amended” his 2023 lawsuit — which calls out the American Petroleum Institute and the world’s five largest fossil-fuel companies for deceiving the public for decades regarding the reality of climate change and its connection to the combustion of fossil fuels, resulting in climate change-related harms in California — which includes additional examples of recent false advertising and greenwashing by the oil companies. And similar to the young Montanans, eight Alaska youth are now suing their state government over a controversial natural-gas pipeline project, saying that further fossil-fuel development in the state — the fastest-warming state in the US — threatens their constitutional right to a livable climate.

What’s to come

Environmentalists in Vermont are expecting every possible legal challenge; as with many of the other laws and suits, a stay from a federal judge could put a long-winded pause on the bill’s implementation.

If the Montana Supreme Court sides with the youth plaintiffs and ends the trajectory of appeal, it will set an intriguing precedent to guide climate-accountability bills through other chambers across the country — not to mention other pending and future lawsuits.

Oregon’s judiciary has already proven that by sending Multnomah County’s suit back to circuit court — it’s a message that modern judges might be more interested in leaving accountability to the discretion of the states, rather than a sweeping national ruling.

Vermont’s leadership in this arena is welcome and critical, but expect much more significant momentum if states such as New York and California pass — and ultimately, enforce — their own versions of legislated climate accountability.

Regardless, the growing wave of these suits and measures is drawing much-needed attention to corporate polluters’ role in fueling climate change. As Michael Burger — executive director of Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Lawtold NPR: “Just by virtue of bringing these cases — mobilizing public attention, putting the impacts and the issues of climate change front and center — I think that these cases have been very high impact, even where they have lost in court.”