Judge Hands Oil Companies a Win in High Profile Climate Lawsuit

San Francisco
San Francisco
Photo: AP

Some cities think oil companies should foot the bill for their climate change impacts. At least one judge begs to differ.


District Court Judge William Alsup in San Francisco dismissed a major climate lawsuit Monday that the cities of San Francisco and Oakland filed against Big Oil bros like ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron last year. The cities believe companies like these should be paying to adapt to sea level rise because, well, they knew about climate change for a long damn time—even while they were claiming it wasn’t real—and their products are what’s driving it.

Alsup called this theory “breathtaking,” in his ruling.

While acknowledging the science of climate change, the judge doesn’t believe the court is the place to deal with the problem. In his view, the White House and Congress are. Plus, the warming of our globe stretches far beyond two cities in California or even the United States; it impacts the entire world.

“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,” Judge Alsup wrote.

The judge is sure to point out Big Oil’s role in our global mess, but he’s also quick to note how we’ve benefited from fossil fuel extraction: “Without those fuels, virtually all of our monumental progress would have been impossible,” he went on.

He’s not wrong. Still, this sets a disappointing precedent for the other cities across the U.S. litigating to acquire dollars from the companies that profited the most from progress. Cities like New York and Boulder, Colorado, are hoping for different outcomes than their friends on the Westest Coast. (Even oil brethens are attacking each other.)

Preparing for climate change ain’t cheap, and someone needs to pay for it. These cities are making the case that it shouldn’t be solely the taxpayer. Oil defendants, on the other hand, just want these suits to go away. In New York City, a Chevron lawyer attempted to convince a judge to throw out the suit, too, earlier this month. And, unfortunately, such arguments hold a bit more weight after Monday’s decision.


This is not the end, though. Attorneys in San Francisco and Oakland are deciding on what to do next. Oakland attorney Barbara Parker told E&E News the plaintiffs are “carefully reviewing the order and considering all options, including an appeal.”

They’re also championing Alsup’s recognition of climate change. A slap of reality is always refreshing in the era of climate denial.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


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Very well analyzed. (I hate giving compliments. I prefere bitching, moaning and making snide remarks.)

It was a brilliant strategy on Oil & Gas to say basically, “yeah, there’s a problem so go ahead and make some policy to do something about it.”

This puts cities, states, and environmental non profits in a trick bag. Trump is in office and O&G is making policy now. Without much movement in policy, the only hope to address climate change via emissions controls is twofold: litigation and technology for at least until 2020.

Litigation is skyrocketing:

This is pretty much only putting lawyers kids in better prep schools

Technology such as renewables, EVs and efficiency measures is not keeping up with fossil fuel demand, chiefly oil and gas. Coal is crazy aunt in the attic of the fossil fuel family. And no my techno libertarian friends, renewables and EVs can’t make it without policy supporting deployment now and for a while. The only folks who believe that are jagoffs.

The sad thing is republicans don’t care. Corporations don’t really give a shit. Any interest shown in climate change mitigation by corporate America is purely marketing at this point. And besides the business of business is business - not social and environmental concern marketing. It needs policy to make the playing field even as declared by the oil & gas industry. One company doesn’t want to source environmental friendly cobalt if the competitor is using 12 year old slaves.

Democrats went for an all the above approach on energy policy to cut emissions. They also hoped that executive orders would last beyond Obama. That ain’t happening.

Democrats better put environmental protection front and center in the party’s platform. The first thing it must do is toss out the mealymouth centrists who make claims like “we need smart regulations to achieve common ground with republicans.” Smart regulations is what Trump’s admin is doing. In their case it’s gutting environmental regulations and that’s smart to them. Democratic party centrists are so full of shit it’s embarrassing to be a democrat.