SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – San Francisco and Oakland cannot hold five of the planet’s largest oil companies liable for climate change, a federal judge ruled Monday.
“The issue is not over science,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote in his motion to dismiss ruling. “The issue is a legal one – whether these producers of fossil fuels should pay for anticipated harm that will eventually flow from a rise in sea level.”
Oakland and San Francisco sued the oil giants last year, asking the court to make them pay billions of dollars for sea walls and other projects needed to combat rising sea levels.
The twin lawsuits accuse BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell of organizing massive disinformation campaigns designed to deceive the public about the dangers of fossil fuels.
Alsup called the scope of the cities’ theory of liability “breathtaking,” saying it would make nearly every supplier of fossil fuels in every corner of the world liable for rising sea levels.
“Their theory rests on the sweeping proposition that otherwise lawful and everyday sales of fossil fuels, combined with an awareness that greenhouse gas emissions lead to increased global temperatures, constitute a public nuisance,” Alsup wrote in his 16-page ruling.
The judge wrote that it would be unfair to ignore the benefits of oil and gas in powering the Industrial Revolution and enabling modern development.
It would be equally unfair to place all the blame for global warming on the shoulders of oil companies, who merely “supplied what we demanded,” Alsup added.
He found that imposing liability on companies for overseas conduct would “undoubtedly implicate the interests of countless governments, both foreign and domestic.”
Alsup concluded that the president, Congress, and international community are better suited than judges to address the global challenges of climate change and rising sea levels.
“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,” the judge wrote.
Alsup previously denied the cities’ motions to remand the cases back to state court, finding that their public nuisance claims must be governed by federal law, rather than state law, due to the international nature of the alleged wrongdoing.
Lawsuits brought by three other California municipalities – San Mateo County, Marin County, and the city of Imperial Beach – were remanded back to state court earlier this year. The oil companies are appealing that decision.
A federal judge in Manhattan is also considering a motion to dismiss New York City’s lawsuit against the same five oil companies.
San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Cote said although this was not the ruling the city wanted, “this doesn’t mean the case is over.”
“We’re pleased that the court recognized that the science of global warming is no longer in dispute,” Cote said in an email. “Our litigation forced a public court proceeding on climate science, and now these companies can no longer deny it is real and valid. Our belief remains that these companies are liable for the harm they’ve caused.”
Cote said the city was still reviewing the order and deciding on its next steps.
“Reliable, affordable energy is not a public nuisance but a public necessity,” said R. Hewitt Pate, Chevron’s vice president and general counsel in a statement. “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.”
Officials with the Oakland City Attorney’s Office did not immediately return emails and phone calls seeking comment after hours on Monday.