Environmental Law

Federal judge tosses nuisance suits seeking to hold oil companies liable for climate change

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Chevron Refinery

Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California. BP, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell have also been named in this litigation. Todd A. Merport / Shutterstock.com.

A federal judge in San Francisco has dismissed lawsuits by two California cities that seek to hold five of the nation’s largest oil companies liable for climate change.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup of San Francisco tossed the public nuisance lawsuits filed by Oakland and San Francisco in a decision on Monday. Courthouse News Service, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle have stories.

“The court will stay its hand in favor of solutions by the legislative and executive branches,” Alsup wrote.

Oakland and San Francisco had argued that climate change will cause rising sea levels that will intrude into their borders.

Alsup said he “accepts the vast scientific consensus” that fossil fuels have led to global warming and accelerated a rise in sea levels. But U.S. energy policy is governed by the Clean Air Act, and the issue outside the United States is the subject of international agreements, he said.

“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 said. “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.”

Several other governments have filed lawsuits on similar grounds, according to the Wall Street Journal.

BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell are the companies named in the litigation.

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