New York City's Landmark Action To Sue Big Oil Just Got Thrown Out Of Court


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


Sad times. Songquan Deng/Shutterstock

Back in January, New York City authorities announced that they would be taking unprecedented legal action against five major oil organizations: ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and ConocoPhillips. They argued, quite fairly, they are playing a key role in driving anthropogenic climate change, and that they’ve been aware of it for decades.

Consequently, they should pay for the defensive anti-flood measures the city has had to put into place in order to mitigate against climate change-related damages, through both sea level rise and storm surges linked to increasingly potent hurricanes. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.


As has happened with similar legal cases in California's San Francisco and Oakland, the legal action was thrown out by the courts yesterday, for much the same reasons. NYC have said they plan to appeal the decision, while many of the defendants have praised the outcome of the saga.

As spotted by Buzzfeed’s Zahra Hirji, United States District Judge John Keenan noted in his remarks that human-driven climate change was a fact of life, and none of the defendants in the case are contesting that. However, he concluded that “the serious problems caused thereby are not for the judiciary to ameliorate.

“Global warming and solutions thereto must be addressed by the two other branches of government,” the Executive and the Legislative, meaning the White House and Congress.


It’s easy to see why such legal action was taken in the first place. Putting any legal debates aside as to the attribution of mitigation costs for the moment, you only have to look at the brazenly pro-fossil fuel federal government and the heavily lobbied Republicans (and, in some cases, Democrats) in Congress, and despair.


If you’ve any doubt as to the power that lobbying has, then a new study makes for some mandatory reading material. It found that the fossil fuel, utilities, and transportation sectors – famously quiet or actively antagonistic against climate change mitigation efforts – spent at least $2 billion in Congressional lobbying between 2000 and 2016.

This latest blow to efforts to circumvent such activities is proving to be deeply disappointing to campaigners who were hoping to enshrine some type of climate change mitigation action in law. “The industry is still on the hook,” May Boeve, the executive director of, said in a statement.

Yes, there are reasons to be optimistic on a global stage. Governments around the world – along with multinational companies, organizations, communities, and various sectors of industry – are increasingly turning to climate change mitigation programs.

At the same time, they’re transitioning, for sensible social, economic, and environmental reasons, to a low-carbon economy. Everyone but the US is supporting the largely non-binding but promising Paris Agreement.


Huge roadblocks remain, though. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are still ludicrously high, to the point where we have to consider removing some of them from the atmosphere if we have any chance of meeting the goals of Paris.

At the same time, although plenty in the US – both conservative and liberal – are taking action for perhaps different reasons, many agree that far more from the world’s second most prolific GHG emitter needs to be done. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in China and India, coal remains a cheap source of energy.

It’s a complex problem that needs to be tackled through various means. Now it appears as if weaponizing the judicial branch of government against the crisis may not be as viable as many had hoped. Some, however, suspect the story’s not quite over just yet.


“While I don’t agree with the court, I am sure the effort to hold oil companies accountable for climate change is not over,” Dr Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told IFLScience.


“I certainly think governments should act, but also companies that knowingly and willfully to action not only to keep polluting but to hide the effects of their actions are culpable.”


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