San Francisco filed suit against the oil industry over the impacts of climate change and rising seasSan Francisco and Oakland's climate suits seek to hold the oil industry accountable for the impacts of climate change. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

A federal judge in California has dismissed the San Francisco and Oakland climate liability lawsuits against five major oil companies, dealing the first major blow to the wave of climate suits that have been filed by communities across the country over the past year.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup granted the oil companies’ motion to dismiss on Monday. The problem of global warming, he determined, is too vast in scope to deem just five companies liable and he said resolving it is best left to the executive and legislative branches of government.

The ruling came one month after a court hearing on the defendants’ motion to dismiss. Following that hearing, Alsup ordered both sides to submit briefs on the question of whether the court must balance the utility and benefit of fossil fuels against their negative consequences. The cities argued that they are not seeking to halt or regulate the oil companies’ conduct, so the court did not have to consider the benefit of producing and selling fossil fuels. Alsup ultimately disagreed.

“This is obviously not the ruling we wanted, but this doesn’t mean the case is over,” said John Coté, press secretary for the San Francisco City Attorney’s office. “We’re reviewing the order and will decide on our next steps shortly.”

If the cities appeal, it would be to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In his decision, Alsup said that liability for public nuisance involves an “unreasonable” interference, and determining if defendants behaved unreasonably “involves the weighing of the gravity of the harm against the utility of the conduct.”

Alsup said the defendants’ conduct was not unreasonable because everyone has benefitted from fossil fuels.

“Our industrial revolution and the development of our modern world has literally been fueled by oil and coal. Without those fuels, virtually all of our monumental progress would have been impossible. All of us have benefitted,” 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 the sale of fossil fuels was unreasonable?”

In a news release responding to the ruling, Chevron made a similar point referencing the “necessity” of fossil fuels and said climate change requires “constructive discussion.”

“Reliable, affordable energy is not a public nuisance but a public necessity,” said R. Hewitt Pate, Chevron’s vice president and general counsel. “Tackling the difficult international policy issues of climate change requires honest and constructive discussion. Using lawsuits to vilify the men and women who provide the energy we all need is neither honest nor constructive.”

Alsup also said that balancing the negative impacts of fossil fuels against their benefits to society is beyond the role of the courts.

“This order fully accepts the vast scientific consensus that the combustion of fossil fuels has materially increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which in turn has increased the median temperature of the planet and accelerated sea level rise. But 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. 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.”

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM)—an industry trade group that has vigorously opposed these climate lawsuits—praised Alsup’s ruling.

“From the moment these baseless lawsuits were filed, we have argued that the courtroom was not the proper venue to address this global challenge,” said Jay Timmons, chief executive of NAM. “Judge Alsup agreed. Other municipalities around the country who have filed similar lawsuits should take note as those complaints are likely to end the same way.”

Lawsuits from 11 other communities are in various stages in federal and state courts across the country. Suits by three other California communities were recently remanded to state court. A federal judge in New York recently heard oil company arguments for dismissal of New York City’s climate suit.

Despite Monday’s setback, the issue is far from settled.

Coté said San Francisco and Oakland’s cases have already succeeded in forcing the fossil fuel companies to acknowledge the science of climate change, which they have long worked to undermine. In March, Alsup held a landmark courtroom tutorial on climate science, during which the oil companies said they agreed with the consensus of the International Panel on Climate Change, which for decades has shown that global warming is driven overwhelmingly by the burning of fossil fuels.

“We’re 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.”