Do Cities Have the Right to Sue Big Oil Over Climate Change?

A federal ruling could force the courts to police polluters.

Depending on the outcome of a crucial legal ruling issued by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, major oil companies may be forced to defend themselves in federal court against city-led climate lawsuits. The ruling stems from San Francisco and Oakland’s respective suits that BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Shell promoted their products as “environmentally responsible,” despite knowing that they posed a threat to the climate.

If the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit backs Alsup’s decision, it could eventually put the onus on fellow federal judges to police polluters, a duty that up until now belonged exclusively to the Environmental Protection Agency. In the meantime, Alsup—the same judge who temporarily blocked Donald Trump’s decision to nix Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals—isn’t sitting around idly waiting on the outcome of his pronouncement. Instead, he took it upon himself to further educate the public and himself on the intricacies of climate change by requesting a scientist present an environmental tutorial to the federal court, Quartz reports.

Daniel Riesel, attorney at the nation’s first environmental law firm, Sive, Paget and Riesel, provided additional insight to Playboy, counting it as yet another response to the current administration’s regressive environmental policies.

“What’s really happening here is that people are frustrated with the inability of our national government to react in a positive way, and this is being—no pun intended—fueled by the pullback, both domestically and internationally, from all the positive steps that…most middle-of-the-road, publicly minded environmentalists had achieved moving from the Bush administration over the last eight years to the Paris Accord. Now, of course, the current administration wants to pull back… the head of the EPA is a global warming denier. Every time this happens, creative lawyers turn to a court for some form of relief. And of course, the courts are not really well-suited to be, in effect, social arbiters.”

In their efforts to have the claims dismissed, the defendants have also called into question the courts’ ability to oversee climate suits. “This is not the first (or even the second or third) time a plaintiff has tried to plead global-warming related tort claims,” the oil companies said in an official filing. “Federal common law does not provide relief here.”
We’re talking about industrialization and reliance on oil as a means of living. Is it fair to have these oil companies that provide a useful product bear the burden of all of society’s actions?
Still, there’s sufficient reason to take into account the gravity of the litigation, Riesel says. Although he emphasizes the complexity of the situation and says it’s too early to determine whether this will lead to subsequent lawsuits of this nature, he warns that there could be major repercussions for the oil companies should the courts find the lawsuits viable.

“If that suit stays alive, it will be quite serious for oil companies,” Riesel explains. “There’s little doubt that you can put enough evidence to get to a jury or even a judge [to see] that the manufacturers of these petroleum products contribute to global warming, which contributes to a rise in the sea, and therefore, the cities in the California coast will have to spend money. So that’s the classic type of tort action: legal theory, facts that fit and damages.” He adds, “This is in a very tentative state, and it remains to be seen whether the appellate federal courts will sustain this type of litigation.”

If nothing else, the attention surrounding the ruling further illuminates the increasingly urgent need to preserve our planet by continuing to fight against climate change. But given the oil and gas industry’s seemingly impenetrable influence in Washington, it’s worth asking whether these cities aren’t engaging in an inevitably fruitless legal face-off against manufacturing giants. Among the various challenges of moving forward with a public nuisance lawsuit, Riesel says that plaintiffs will have to prove whether it’s reasonable to place the weight of these environmentally damaging claims solely on the shoulders of the accused. The legal team for Chevron stated that though they agree with the scientific consensus regarding climate change, it is the fault of the human race collectively, not just specific corporations. After all, oil companies are just selling what we all want to buy.

“There’s always a question of fairness,” Riesel says. “We’re talking about industrialization and reliance on oil as a means of living. Is it fair to have these oil companies [that] provide a useful product bear the burden of all of society’s actions? Is it fair to make these particular defendant companies pay for all of those ills? I think that’s a big burden.”

In the coming weeks, the courts will address the defendants’ request to have the lawsuit dismissed. While government entities sort through the complexities and decide who’s responsible for enforcing environmental accountability, it’s crucial that we find ways to relieve a planet that has unequivocally shown us that the load we place upon it for sustenance could very well lead to self-destruction.

Photo credit: Doczky

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