Big Oil Wins Climate Change Lawsuits

The courts are no place to be deciding on the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change, ruled a Northern California federal district court judge in a "stinging defeat" to San Francisco and Oakland that wanted Big Oil to pay mitigation costs.

June 28, 2018, 8:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


pallets of green oil barrels stacked

Sergio Russo / flickr

"The decision is a stinging defeat for the plaintiffs, San Francisco and Oakland, and raises warning flags for other local governments around the United States that have filed similar suits, including New York City," reports John Schwartz for The New York Times on June 25.

The two lawsuits filed last September by San Francisco and Oakland charged that Big Oil knew about the dangers of their products to the earth's environment, much like Big Tobacco knew the dangers of their products to public healthbut promoted them anyway.

"Both cities are asking the companies, which include Bay Area-based Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Shell and BP, to pay billions in compensation for past and future flooding, coastal erosion and property damage resulting from climate change," notes a September 2017 post. "In July, the counties of Marin and San Mateo, as well as the city of Imperial Beach, also sued along similar lines." In March, the Marin, San Mateo, and Imperial Beach (San Diego County) lawsuits were sent to state court.

Judge rejects tobacco analogy

"Judge William Alsup of Federal District Court in San Francisco said the world had benefited from fossil fuels and held that the courts were not the proper venue to balance those benefits against global warming concerns," adds Schwartz in a separate article that includes the 16-page opinion.

Alsup, appointed by President Bill Clinton (D) in 1999, also rejected the legal theory used by the two cities, that of "public nuisance under state common law, which allows courts to hold parties responsible for actions that interfere with the use of property." And he wasn't alone.

“Reliable, affordable energy is not a public nuisance but a public necessity,” said R. Hewitt Pate, vice president and general counsel for Chevron.

"While the oil companies acknowledged in March before the court that climate change is real and merits a response, they said it isn’t something that can be solved with a lawsuit, it needs legislation," reports Umair Irfan for Vox. "This was the argument that swayed Alsup."

Alsup also referred to the “worldwide positives of the energy” which needed to be balanced against fossil fuels' contribution to global warming, reported Sudhin Thanawala for the Associated Press. Also acknowledged the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming but also warned not to “ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded.”

The lawsuits were referenced in a recent post about a political effort by the energy industry to promote a carbon fee-and-dividend plan. In exchange for paying a carbon tax, energy companies would be given immunity to climate-based lawsuits and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would revoke greenhouse gas regulations like the Clean Power Plan (which they are already doing).

The dismissal of the lawsuit is the second energy-related recent judicial defeat for Oakland. Last month, a federal judge struck down their ban on coal exports, greenlighting the construction of a new cargo facility at the Oakland Army Base. The city council voted to appeal the ruling.

Monday, June 25, 2018 in The New York Times

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