Energy & Environment

Judge dismisses California cities’ climate lawsuits against oil companies

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A federal judge dismissed a pair of lawsuits that two California cities filed against major oil companies for their roles in climate change and its effects.

The ruling is a blow to San Francisco and Oakland and environmentalists who have long tried to hold fossil fuel companies liable for climate change.

Judge William Alsup stated in his late Monday ruling that his decision did not hinge on climate science and that there was no dispute about the harms of fossil fuels.


But Alsup, nominated to the bench by former President Bill Clinton, ultimately felt that the core questions raised in the case were best left up to the federal government, Congress and international organizations.

“Questions of how to appropriately balance these worldwide negatives against the worldwide positives of the energy itself, and of how to allocate the pluses and minuses among the nations of the world, demand the expertise of our environmental agencies, our diplomats, our Executive, and at least the Senate,” Alsup wrote.

“Nuisance suits in various United States judicial districts regarding conduct worldwide are far less likely to solve the problem and, indeed, could interfere with reaching a worldwide consensus,” he continued.

“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.”

Alsup also felt that for a court to weigh in on substantive policy questions would be a violation of the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, since those are rights reserved for other branches.

The lawsuits, filed last year, employed a novel legal strategy to try to accomplish climate goals, a strategy that a handful of other major liberal cities have started to try as well.. The defendants were BP, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell.

The National Association of Manufacturers, which has fought the strategy and sees the lawsuits as a threat to manufacturing, praised Alsup’s ruling.

“From the moment these baseless lawsuits were filed, we have argued that the courtroom was not the proper venue to address this global challenge,” NAM president Jay Timmons said in a statement.

“Judge Alsup agreed. Other municipalities around the country who have filed similar lawsuits should take note as those complaints are likely to end the same way.”

Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri said the company has “said all along that addressing the risks of climate change is a serious global challenge that should be addressed by policymakers and not by the courts.”

Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, said the ruling is a disappointment. His group has been actively pushing for similar lawsuits around the country.

“The case before the judge was never about how to solve global climate change but simply whether oil and gas producers should help San Francisco and Oakland pay for the costs of adapting to it,” he said in a statement.

“By kicking the case to a do-nothing Congress and a climate denying White House, the court essentially ruled that taxpayers alone should pay the massive costs of adapting to climate change.”

Tags Bill Clinton Climate change oil

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