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Oil Companies Want Climate Lawsuits Dismissed

San Francisco Chronicle

Five of the world’s largest oil producers urged a federal judge Thursday to dismiss lawsuits by San Francisco and Oakland that seek to hold the companies liable for climate change, arguing that the issue is one for Congress, not the courts.

San Francisco and Oakland are among a handful of communities nationwide, including New York City and King County, Wash., squaring off over global warming with the fossil fuel industry, and now the Trump administration. An attorney for the Department of Justice stood with industry lawyers in the federal courthouse in San Francisco, echoing their request that the cases be dropped.

The communities accuse the oil industry of knowingly selling products that emit damaging heat-trapping gases, and they’re suing for billions of dollars to address such problems as sea-level rise. The companies counter that greenhouse gas emissions are regulated under the Clean Air Act and remain the purview of lawmakers.

“Global warming is a serious issue, but it’s not one that can be solved by a lawsuit,” said attorney Ted Boutrous, who represents Chevron of San Ramon and also represented ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and ConocoPhillips on Thursday. “The plaintiffs are asking the courts to wade into the clear territory of Congress. To say the least, that’s a big ask.”

Boutrous not only argued that the nation’s environmental laws are the proper way to deal with industrial emissions, but also said that if a judge takes up the matter of fossil fuels, the court would be reaching too far into issues of national energy policy and national security, topics best handled by Washington.e lawsuits would move forward. He asked both sides for more information. In addition, he authorized the cities to collect information from the out-of-state oil companies, which also argued that liability for California issues shouldn’t extend beyond the state’s border.

The San Francisco and Oakland cases are the furthest along of roughly a dozen similar legal efforts and they’re being closely watched across the nation. The suits have put global warming on unprecedented legal ground and have huge stakes for how the localities will cover the rising costs of climate change.

San Francisco alone estimates that $10 billion of public property and as much as $39 billion of private land are threatened by rising seas. The city wants money to repair its seawalls, control drainage, and relocate streets and infrastructure.

“It’s hard to know what’s going to happen with the suits,” said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law. “We have not had a case like this that has gotten beyond the motion-to-dismiss phase.”

The attorneys for the oil companies sought to justify their pleas for dismissal with prior court cases. Many of the rulings they cited, including the 2011 decision in American Electric Power Co. vs. Connecticut, found that corporations can’t be sued for greenhouse gas emissions because Congress has laws, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, to regulate pollutants.

San Francisco and Oakland, however, are making a slightly different legal case than the earlier suits. They’re going after the oil companies not for greenhouse gas emissions but for producing and promoting fossil fuels.

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