The city council in Vancouver, British Columbia, narrowly voted last week to help fund a potential lawsuit that its backers say would force major oil companies in Canada to pay their “fair share” of the costs associated with climate change.

The council voted six-to-five on a motion to set aside up to C$1.00 per resident, or nearly C$700,000 (US$542,000), to help fund the Sue Big Oil campaign launched in June by the environmental groups West Coast Environmental Law and Georgia Straight Alliance.

The group is taking a cue from successful lawsuits in the US claiming compensation from tobacco and pharmaceutical companies for selling products that they allegedly knew were harmful to users.

“Big Tobacco, Big Asbestos and Big Pharma all learned that if you sell products that you know will cause massive harm, sooner or later you will be sued. We can win against Big Oil too,” Andrew Gage, staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, wrote in a white paper in June.

“A lawsuit by BC’s local governments against global fossil fuel companies for climate costs will ensure that governments, corporations and investors start to address the true costs of fossil fuels in their financial decisions.”

Vancouver became the first city in Canada to sign up, a move supported by Mayor Kennedy Stewart.

“I think it’s time to make sure all the burden of climate change doesn’t land on local taxpayers and big oil pays their fair share,” Stewart said, as reported by the CBC.

Gage told CBC there is no specific timeline for filing a lawsuit but if it proceeds and the plaintiffs win, the settlement would be shared among communities and used to pay for mitigation measures against climate “events” such as floods, landslides, fires and heatwaves.

Councillor Adriane Carr, who put forward the motion, told the Globe & Mail: “You get the companies that knowingly have kept selling their product, emitting [greenhouse gases], causing climate change, to pay the cost for cities like Vancouver that have borne phenomenally high amounts of money to repair damages caused by climate change.”

But fellow councillor Lisa Dominato, who voted against the measure, said the money would be better spent to address one of the city’s “many pressing priorities”, the newspaper reported.

“I would have preferred to have seen that [C$700,000] invested in things like EV infrastructure or the electric vehicle fleet for the city, retrofits of our own buildings. But instead that money is basically going to be held in trust and for an unknown date for an unknown class action lawsuit.”

The move also drew some consternation from neighbouring Alberta, Canada’s main oil and gas producing province.

“If Vancouver city council has made a decision that is in absence of speaking with the energy sector, that would surprise me,” Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek said, as reported by Global News. “I would hope we have all begun to understand how important it is for the public and private sector to work together.”

Richard Masson, an executive fellow with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, said: “We should be moving to wind and solar and hydrogen and all those things. But in the short term, there is going to be a bigger need for Canada to deliver natural gas and oil to a very thirsty world.”

The court case is believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, but such actions are increasingly common in the US, where environmental advocacy group Center for Climate Integrity says 20 municipalities, six states, the District of Columbia and one trade association have filed similar lawsuits.