The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has issued a ruling dismissing the climate change lawsuits filed against Chevron Corporation by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland. The court dismissed the complaint as requiring foreign and domestic policy decisions that are outside the proper purview of the courts.
As the court described, “the scope of plaintiffs’ theory is breathtaking. It would reach the sale of fossil fuels anywhere in the world, including all past and otherwise lawful sales.”
“It is true,” the court continued, “that carbon dioxide released from fossil fuels has caused (and will continue to cause) global warming. But against that negative, we must weigh this positive: our industrial revolution and the development of our modern world has literally been fueled by oil and coal. Without these fuels, virtually all of our monumental progress would have been impossible. All of us have benefitted. 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?”
The court concluded by dismissing the claims and deferring to the policy judgments of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government: “The dangers raised in the complaints are very real. But those dangers are worldwide. Their causes are worldwide. The benefits of fossil fuels are worldwide. 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. While it remains true that our federal courts have authority to fashion common law remedies for claims based on global warming, courts must also respect and defer to the other co-equal branches of government when the problem at hand clearly deserves a solution best addressed by those branches.”
“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.”
The court’s decision dismisses a lawsuit that the cities of San Francisco and Oakland filed against BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, seeking to hold a selected group of oil and gas companies responsible for the potential effects of global climate change. The suit, filed in 2017, claims that the production and sale of oil and gas are a public nuisance because they result in greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to worldwide climate change and rising sea levels. The U.S. Supreme Court and other courts around the country have previously rejected similar claims brought by the same lawyers. Those courts—like the court today—found that our nation’s environmental policies must be determined by national policymakers like the Environmental Protection Agency, not courts of law.