US Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Holding Oil Companies Responsible For Climate Change

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A US judge in California has dismissed a lawsuit claiming oil and gas companies should be responsible for the costs of preventing and rebuilding damages associated to climate change, which comes at a price tag of hundreds of billions a year. 

The cities of San Francisco and Oakland filed suit last year against five oil and gas giants alleging the companies have known for decades that greenhouse gas emissions warm the planet but have done nothing to prevent the problems, adding further that they attempted to cover their connection to climate change. The “public nuisance” claim is similar to how big tobacco hid the ill health effects of cigarette smoking (which they'd known about since the 1950s), and would ultimately force companies like Chevron, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP to pay for damages and preventative measures, such as seawalls.

Judge William Alsup granted the oil companies’ request of dismissal, saying that while both parties recognize the issue of climate change, the issue is ultimately political and not one for the courts to decide. Alsup also says the world has benefited from fossil fuels as well, and it’s not the judiciary branch’s role to weigh benefits against the detriments.

“Having reaped the benefit of that historic progress, would it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded?” Judge Alsup wrote in the 16-page ruling. “Is it really fair, in light of those benefits, to say that the sale of fossil fuels was unreasonable?”

The cities originally filed in state court, but the oil and gas companies requested the case be moved to a federal court because it was a federal issue. Judge Alsup upheld that argument in his ruling, saying foreign and domestic policy decisions fall outside of the court’s purview. Instead, environmental agencies should be tapped for their knowledge on the subject matter with the legislative and executive branches calling the shots.

Chevron said in a statement it “supports meaningful efforts to address climate change and accepts internationally recognized climate science, but climate change is a global issue that requires global engagement, not lawsuits.”

It's not clear what the two cities plan to do next. If they choose to move forward, they may appeal their case to the 9th circuit court before the Supreme Court. Regardless, this decision will not dictate the outcomes of the six other cases in California or other lawsuits across the nation in state and federal courts filed under similar claims.

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