A federal court judge yesterday threw out lawsuits from two California cities seeking to make oil companies pay for worsening sea-level rise and other climate change impacts.
Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted the request from five oil companies seeking dismissal of the cases brought by San Francisco and Oakland. They were suing Chevron Corp., BP PLC, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC, arguing that the companies make and sell products that when combusted create a public nuisance. The cities also contended that the companies knew the global dangers for decades and hid that information while protecting their assets.
Alsup, a Clinton appointee who in March held a high-profile “tutorial” on climate science, said evaluating blame for warming impacts is a political issue and not one for the courts to decide.
“This order accepts the science behind global warming,” Alsup said in his ruling. “So do both sides. The dangers raised in the complaints are very real. But those dangers are worldwide. Their causes are worldwide. The benefits of fossil fuels are worldwide. The problem deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public nuisance case.”
The decision marks a huge blow for climate change activists and other cities pursuing similar lawsuits. It’s a win, meanwhile, for the oil companies and other industry groups that opposed the lawsuit.
John Coté, communications director for San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said in an email that “this is obviously not the ruling we wanted, but this doesn’t mean the case is over.”
“We’re reviewing the order and will decide on our next steps shortly,” he added. “We’re pleased that the court recognized that the science of global warming is no longer in dispute. Our litigation forced a public court proceeding on climate science, and now these companies can no longer deny it is real and valid. Our belief remains that these companies are liable for the harm they’ve caused.”
Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said that “we are carefully reviewing the order and considering all options, including an appeal.”
“We believe our lawsuit presents valid claims and these defendants must be held accountable for misleading the American people about the catastrophic risks to human beings and all forms of life on this planet caused by fossil fuel-driven global warming and sea-level rise,” she said.
Alsup said the cities’ theory—that the combustion of fossil fuels created a nuisance—had a scope that was “breathtaking.”
“It would reach the sale of fossil fuels anywhere in the world, including all past and otherwise lawful sales, where the seller knew that the combustion of fossil fuels contributed to the phenomenon of global warming,” Alsup said in his order. “While these actions are brought against the first, second, fourth, sixth and ninth largest producers of fossil fuels, anyone who supplied fossil fuels with knowledge of the problem would be liable.”
The cities originally filed the suits in state court. The oil companies moved the cases to federal court, and Alsup ruled that they belonged in his court because it was a federal issue. In that ruling, he appeared to indicate he did not believe that federal law and federal court precedents precluded the cities from seeking action. In his ruling yesterday, Alsup said there was no conflict between that decision and this one.
“It remains proper for the scope of plaintiffs’ claims to be decided under federal law, given the international reach of the alleged wrong,” Alsup said. “Although the scope of plaintiffs’ claims is determined by federal law, there are sound reasons why regulation of the worldwide problem of global warming should be determined by our political branches, not by our judiciary.”
The lawsuits by San Francisco and Oakland were the first to go forward among a growing group of similar cases. Also in California, Imperial Beach, San Mateo, Marin County, Richmond, Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County are suing two dozen or more fossil fuel companies and trade associations in separate cases. A decision in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is pending on whether to uphold an order by federal Judge Vince Chhabria that moved those suits from federal to state court.
The city of Boulder and the counties of San Miguel and Boulder in Colorado are suing Suncor Energy Inc. and Exxon Mobil, demanding “past and future damages” for climate impacts. King County, Wash., sued the same five companies named in the San Francisco and Oakland suits. New York City also filed a claim against the same oil companies named in those suits.
National Association of Manufacturers President and CEO Jay Timmons in a statement said this ruling could foreshadow what those cities are up against.
“Other municipalities around the country who have filed similar lawsuits should take note as those complaints are likely to end the same way,” he said. “New York City, Boulder, and the other California municipalities should withdraw their complaints and follow the lead of others that are focused on meaningful solutions.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.