Federal Court Dismisses Climate Lawsuit, Ruling that Oil Industry is Too Big to Fail

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A federal court this week dismissed a groundbreaking lawsuit by San Francisco and Oakland that would have forced some of the world’s largest oil companies to pay a portion of local taxpayers’ costs of adapting to climate change.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup reasoned that climate change is a “worldwide problem” that requires “a balancing of policy concerns–including the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions, our industrial society’s dependence on fossil fuels, and national security.”

For our legal analysis of the errors in the decision, click here.

Judge Alsup’s reasons for dismissing the case are concerning. He acknowledged that the five oil companies being sued are “collectively responsible for over eleven percent of all carbon dioxide and methane pollution that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.”

But he then concluded that fossil fuels are so essential to our economy that the oil industry cannot be held liable for any harm that their products cause.

In other words, the oil and gas industry is “too big to fail.”

San Francisco and Oakland are not lucky enough to have such a revered status. As sea levels rise, taxpayers in these two cities will be forced to bear the costs themselves. Building sea walls and barriers will cost local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, described some of the looming costs if protective measures are not taken:

“San Francisco, Oakland and the six other California jurisdictions that have filed climate lawsuits can expect accelerating sea level rise that by 2045 will threaten some 8,800 homes that today represent $76 million annually in local property taxes. By the end of the century, some 52,000 homes that currently contribute $435 million in annual property taxes will be at risk.”

A growing number of county and city leaders are aware of the enormous climate costs on the horizon and are looking for ways to protect their constituents. In addition to the San Francisco and Oakland cases, nine similar lawsuits have been filed against the oil and gas industry in the past year. All of the other lawsuits are still pending.

The lawsuits do not attempt to place 100% of the blame for climate change on the oil and gas companies. Rather, the communities bringing these lawsuits have demanded that oil companies pay their fair share, based on their level of responsibility for the crisis.

The lawsuits draw on extensive evidence that ExxonMobil and other oil companies have sold products for decades that they knew were dangerous. Rather than warn the public or take actions to make their products safer, these companies chose to conceal the risks in order to maximize profits. And like Big Tobacco, they also participated in disinformation campaigns to spread doubt about climate change.

Judge Alsup’s decision did not mention that the oil companies concealed the dangers of fossil fuels from the public. Instead, it skipped from the scientific underpinnings of climate science up to the 1960s to the global recognition of the climate crisis in the late 1980s — omitting the critical period, starting no later than 1968, when the oil industry in particular had excellent evidence and research on the dangers of greenhouse gases.

While this court decision is disappointing, it does not end efforts to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for their contributions to climate change. Other lawsuits — including ERI’s own lawsuit on behalf of communities in Colorado — are proceeding and will not necessarily follow the same path. Meanwhile, evidence continues to emerge of the oil industry’s role in misleading the public and delaying the shift toward carbon-neutral energy sources.

Jamie Henn, Strategic Communications Director of 350.org, said, “As the full extent of the fossil fuel industry’s history of deceit and denial comes to light, we expect other courts to rule in the opposite direction. These climate lawsuits are just heating up, and this decision will do little to cool them down.”

One court has determined that this crisis is best left to the nation’s political branches. I’m sure  the residents of San Francisco and Oakland can rest easy knowing that Big Oil will work closely with the Trump Administration and Congress to protect them from climate change.

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