Federal Judge Says Courts Can't Hold Oil Companies Responsible for Destroying the Planet

US District Judge William Alsup called the courts an inappropriate venue for dealing with the issue of climate change.
June 27, 2018, 3:07pm
Image: Flickr/Paul Lowry

A federal judge dismissed two major lawsuits against big oil companies on Monday. The decision was a loss for the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, which sought to hold fossil fuel giants accountable for the effects of climate change.

In his ruling, US District Judge William Alsup asserted that “all of us” have benefited from fossil fuel advancements. The issue of global warming and sea level rise, he wrote, is too vast to be dealt with in the courts.


“Nuisance suits in various United States judicial districts regarding conduct worldwide are far less likely to solve the problem and, indeed, could interfere with reaching a worldwide consensus,” Alsup wrote.

San Francisco and Oakland accused BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell of producing and promoting fossil fuels that contributed to global warming and sea level rise. The coastal cities wanted these companies to pay for infrastructure projects such as seawall repair and street relocation.

Alsup’s 16-page ruling acknowledged the science of climate change, and the consensus among scientists about its causes. “As our globe warms and the seas rise,” he wrote, “coastal lands in Oakland and San Francisco will, without erection of seawalls and other infrastructure, eventually become submerged by the navigable waters of the United States.” (Alsup had ordered a climate tutorial to inform the case in March.)

But despite Alsup’s convictions, he disagreed with the plaintiffs’ argument—naming Congress and the White House as better venues for addressing the matter.

He also questioned whether big oil companies are solely at fault. ”Would it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels,” Alsup asked, “and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded?”

John Cote from the San Francisco city attorney's office told CBS News that he was pleased to see climate science championed in the court’s decision.

Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, called the lawsuits “baseless,” and told CBS News that “the courtroom was not the proper venue to address this global challenge.”

San Francisco, according to Cote, is reviewing the ruling and will be deciding its next steps. “This is obviously not the ruling we wanted, but this doesn’t mean the case is over,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Other similar lawsuits, such as those by Marin and San Mateo counties, and New York City, could be heard in the future. Though it’s unclear what kind of precedent this week’s ruling will have on them.