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Chevron fights California cities' climate-change lawsuits with 'creative lawyering'

Chevron fights California cities' climate-change lawsuits with 'creative lawyering'
Chevron is facing lawsuits from San Francisco and Oakland blaming "the nuisance of global warming" on decades of fossil fuel production. (Dreamstime / TNS)

If Chevron Corp. has caused climate change and needs to pay for its damage, so should pretty much every company that has ever explored for oil and gas near North America, as well as manufacturers of cars and equipment that burn fuel, plus consumers.

That's Chevron's response to lawsuits by San Francisco and Oakland, blaming "the nuisance of global warming" on decades of fossil fuel production. So Chevron turned around and sued Oslo-based Statoil, calling it "one of many" oil producers that should help foot the bill if the industry is found liable. Several of the biggest — BP, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell — were already named by the cities as defendants.

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Adding foreign companies to the litigation is a tactical maneuver to keep the dispute out of state court, where the cities have more favorable prospects, and force it into federal court, said Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel for the environmental law group Our Children's Trust, which isn't involved in the case.

"The industry is grasping at straws while looking for any way out of these cases and using creative lawyering to do so," she said. "By cherry-picking Statoil, a sovereign Norwegian entity, Chevron hopes to reinforce federal jurisdiction."

The cities are trying to make the companies pay into a fund for infrastructure needed to adapt to global warming, such as sea walls for rising ocean levels. Similar complaints were filed by at least five other California cities and counties, as well as New York City. Several judges have seen previous climate suits as a political issue and determined they would be "better resolved by legislatures or agencies," said Emily Hammond, an energy and environmental law professor at George Washington University.

"Perhaps Chevron is attempting to lay that foundation with this move," said Hammond. "By naming Statoil as a defendant and highlighting the global nature of fossil fuel extraction, Chevron may be hoping to tee up reasons for a federal court to dismiss the case."

A federal judge in San Francisco will decide whether the cases should stay there or proceed in the Superior Courts of Alameda and San Francisco counties. Statoil declined to comment on Chevron's tactics, with a spokesman saying he didn't know whether his company was notified before Chevron sued it.

Mehrotra writes for Bloomberg.

UPDATES:

4:10 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect that a federal judge in San Francisco did not decide Thursday whether the cases should stay there or proceed in different courts, but will make that decision in the future.

This article was originally published at 11:30 a.m.

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