San Francisco, Oakland sue oil companies over climate change

San Francisco, Oakland sue oil companies over climate change
© Joaquin Sosa

San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., are suing five major oil companies, blaming them for the effects of climate change.

The cities announced Wednesday they each filed a lawsuit in their respective county courts against Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., ExxonMobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell and BP.

The lawsuits by two of California’s largest cities add to an emerging legal strategy to try to hold individual fossil fuel companies responsible for rising sea levels, extreme weather and other effects of human-induced climate change.

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“These fossil fuel companies profited handsomely for decades while knowing they were putting the fate of our cities at risk,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera (D) said in a statement.

“Instead of owning up to it, they copied a page from the Big Tobacco playbook. They launched a multi-million dollar disinformation campaign to deny and discredit what was clear even to their own scientists: global warming is real, and their product is a huge part of the problem,” he continued.

“These companies knew fossil fuel-driven climate change was real, they knew it was caused by their products and they lied to cover up that knowledge to protect their astronomical profits,” said Barbara Parker (D), Oakland’s city attorney.

“The harm to our cities has commenced and will only get worse,” she said.

The attorneys cite company and industry documents they say show oil companies knew about the risks of climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions, but chose to publicly sow doubts about.

The cities sit on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay, which has already seen rising water levels due to climate change. The city attorneys say that further increases in sea level would inundate properties and cause billions of dollars worth of damage.

The lawsuits are far from the first attempt to sue fossil fuel companies for climate change, but previous actions have not been successful. A 2008 lawsuit by an Alaska village, for example, was dismissed because the federal court ruled that the Clean Air Act overrode any public nuisance claim.

But just two months ago, Marin and San Mateo counties, also in Northern California, sued some major oil companies in state court using similar arguments.

Chevron said it welcomes opportunities to fight climate change, but the cities’ lawsuits are not constructive.

“Chevron welcomes serious attempts to address the issue of climate change, but these suits do not do that,” the company said in a statement.

"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement and action. Should this litigation proceed, it will only serve special interests at the expense of broader policy, regulatory and economic priorities.”

“The claims in these lawsuits are without merit,” said Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri. “We will vigorously defend ourselves against them.”

— This story was updated at 5:15 p.m.