Judge dismisses global warming lawsuits against oil companies by CA cities

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against five oil companies filed by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland that alleged that oil companies were responsible for global warming and should be forced to pay billions to mitigate the effects of climate change.

U.S. district judge William Alsup, a Clinton appointee, dismissed the suit largely on jurisdictional grounds, agreeing that global warming is a problem but that the courts are not the place to address it.

Wall Street Journal:

"The dangers raised in the complaints are very real," he wrote.  "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 ruling is a blow to an emerging legal campaign by cities and municipalities that are trying to argue that oil and gas companies created a public nuisance by producing fossil fuels they knew would result in harmful emissions.  New York City and several other local governments in California, Washington and Colorado have also sued on similar grounds.

"Reliable, affordable energy is not a public nuisance but a public necessity," said R. Hewitt Pate, Chevron's general counsel.  "Using lawsuits to vilify the men and women who provide the energy we all need is neither honest nor constructive."

Spokesmen for Shell and ConocoPhillips said the companies were pleased with the ruling.  Representatives for Exxon and BP didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Alsup cited efforts by the executive branch to address the issue of global warming, creating a conflict with the courts:

Defendants in the Oakland and San Francisco cases argued that Congress has given the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate pollution effects under the Clean Air Act, and that the cases impinged on the agency's powers.

Judge Alsup said the court "fully accepts the vast scientific consensus" that the burning of fossil fuels is leading global temperatures to increase and to "accelerated sea level rise."

Yet he highlighted previous legal rulings which found the Clean Air Act, which grants the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to set emissions standards, displaces federal common law suits related to greenhouse gas emissions.

These suits, and others filed by several cities around the country, are different from the suit by the state attorneys general against Exxon.

The attorneys general of New York, Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin Islands launched investigations of Exxon in 2015 and 2016. Prosecutors want to see if the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how such risks might hurt the oil business.

The investigations drew a quick, fierce response from Exxon.  The company went on the legal offensive to try to shut down the probes, employing an army of aggressive, high-priced lawyers and a strategy of massive resistance.  The attorney general of the Virgin Islands capitulated and ended his investigation just three months after issuing subpoenas.

The A.G.s allege that Exxon violated federal law by telling investors that the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate are not knowable.

From a trove of internal Exxon documents, a narrative emerged in 2015 that put a spotlight on the conduct of the fossil fuel industry.  An investigative series of stories by InsideClimate News, and later the Los Angeles Times, disclosed that the oil company understood the science of global warming, predicted its catastrophic consequences, and then spent millions to promote misinformation.

That evidence ignited a legal clamor that included calls for a federal criminal investigation of Exxon.  The challenges gained momentum when attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts subpoenaed the oil giant for internal climate change-related documents.  Then some of the country's largest cities entered the fray, seeking billions of dollars to fortify against climate change.  

The A.G. suit is based largely on reports delivered by a company scientist in 1977 who warned executives about CO2 causing the climate to warm.  The problem for the A.G.s is that there was definitely not a "consensus" on climate change at that time, with some scientists believing that the Earth was cooling, not warming.

But Exxon may be in trouble for "lying" to investors about the risks of global warming.  While not likely under a Trump administration, a future Democratic president might look to prosecute Exxon for "misleading" the public.

The lawsuits by cities will continue, and oil companies will be forced to spend tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.  We can only imagine what better use the company could put that money to if the suits went away.

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