Federal Judge Dismisses Groundbreaking Climate Change Lawsuits Against Big Oil

San Francisco and Oakland had sued major oil firms to hold them accountable for global warming’s damaging effects.

In a blow to activists seeking a way to hold big oil companies accountable for the damaging effects of global warming, a federal judge dismissed a pair of groundbreaking climate change lawsuits on Monday brought by two California cities against several major oil firms.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who had ordered a first-of-its-kind climate change “tutorial” earlier this year to help him understand issues raised by the suits, said in a lengthy ruling that he “fully accepts the vast scientific consensus” that fossil fuels have contributed to increasing temperatures and rising sea levels. But he said the problem was simply too massive — and too global in scope — for just one “district judge or jury” to solve.

Noting that the world has reaped many benefits from fossil fuels since the dawn of the industrial era, the San Francisco-based judge said “questions of how to appropriately balance ... worldwide negatives against the worldwide positives of the energy itself” must be handled by the U.S. government’s executive and legislative branches.

The cities of San Francisco and Oakland sued BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell last year. City officials argued that the five companies had created a “public nuisance,” and should be held accountable for the destructive — and costly — ramifications of global warming. 

The suits accused the companies of having long known of the link between fossil fuels and planet-warming greenhouse gases, yet had not only done little to prevent their damaging effects but had even tried to hide these facts from the public.

The suits argued that the companies should help pay for sea walls and other infrastructure projects aimed at protecting communities against the effects of global warming. San Francisco has estimated that some $10 billion of public property and up to $39 billion of private land has been put at risk because of climate change-related rising seas, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

While Alsup acknowledged the existence of climate change and its associated risks, he said he was not persuaded by the cities’ legal argument.

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

A spokeswoman for Shell told Reuters that the company agreed with the judge’s opinion that complex problems related to climate change are a matter “for the courts but requires sound government policy.”

Alsup, who invited experts from both sides of the case to be part of the climate change tutorial he presided over in March, also said he didn’t believe that oil companies were the only ones to blame for Earth’s environmental crisis.

“All of us have benefitted” from the “monumental progress” spurred by the industrial revolution, Alsup wrote. “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? Is it really fair, in light of those benefits, to say that the sale of fossil fuels was unreasonable?”

As the Chronicle noted, several other local governments around the country, including New York City and Kings County, Washington, have pursued similar suits against big oil firms.

Michael Burger of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law told The New York Times it was “too early to tell” whether Alsup’s decision would have an impact on those efforts. Attorney and policy expert Andrew Grossman suggested on Twitter, however, that “given the respect for Alsup, expect his reasoning to carry weight in other cases.”

Alsup, who has presided over several high-profile cases, was nominated to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton and has served on it since 1999.

San Francisco officials indicated they aren’t ready to give up their legal targeting of oil companies.

“This is obviously not the ruling we wanted, but this doesn’t mean the case is over,” John Coté, a spokesman for the San Francisco city attorney, said in a statement.

He added that the city was “pleased that the court recognized that the science of global warming is no longer in dispute.”

“Our litigation forced a public court proceeding on climate science, and now these companies can no longer deny it is real and valid,” Coté said. “Our belief remains that these companies are liable for the harm they’ve caused.”