Judge throws out climate-change lawsuits against big oil companies

The Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., is shown in 2010.
The Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., is shown in 2010.
(Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)

BP Plc, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. escaped blame for the public costs of global warming when a U.S. judge ruled that lawsuits by cities against oil companies aren’t the answer to climate change.

“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,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote Monday in dismissing complaints by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland.

Litigation by local governments in the U.S. including New York City, Boulder, Colo., and eight California cities and counties is a new front in the global fight against climate change. The suits thrown out Monday sought to recover the cost of infrastructure needed to protect against rising sea levels. ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell Plc were also among the defendants.


The judge said it’s true that carbon dioxide released from fossil fuels has contributed to global warming, but on the other hand, “development of our modern world has literally been fueled by oil and coal.”

“All of us have benefited,” Alsup wrote. “Having reaped the benefit of that historic progress, would it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded?”

The judge concluded in his 16-page ruling that the issue is best addressed by the federal government’s legislative and executive branches. The Trump administration made that argument in urging the judge to toss the suits, even while the administration has opposed efforts worldwide to fight climate change.

“While it remains true that our federal courts have authority to fashion common law remedies for claims based on global warming, courts must also respect and defer to the other co-equal branches of government when the problem at hand clearly deserves a solution best addressed by those branches,” Alsup wrote.

A spokesman for the San Francisco city attorney said the office is reviewing the judge’s order and will decide next steps shortly.

“We’re pleased that the court recognized that the science of global warming is no longer in dispute,” John Cote said in an emailed statement. “Our litigation forced a public court proceeding on climate science, and now these companies can no longer deny it is real and valid.”


Oakland City Atty. Barbara Parker said her city is weighing whether to appeal.

“Our lawsuit presents valid claims and these defendants must be held accountable for misleading the American people about the catastrophic risks to human beings and all forms of life on this planet caused by fossil fuel-driven global warming and sea level rise,” she said in an email.

A request by the oil companies for dismissal of the New York City case is pending in Manhattan federal court.