California’s war on fossil fuel companies just faced a huge setback

But a judge ruled the science is still correct.

A Chevron oil field along Highway 58 is a hub of activity and appears to be pumping oil and natural gas at near full production on March 28, 2017, near McKittrick, California. CREDIT: George Rose/Getty Images
A Chevron oil field along Highway 58 is a hub of activity and appears to be pumping oil and natural gas at near full production on March 28, 2017, near McKittrick, California. CREDIT: George Rose/Getty Images

Two California cities suffered a major setback in their fight to make fossil fuel companies pay for costs associated with climate change after a federal judge threw out their lawsuit Monday evening. While the judge acknowledged that the risks of climate change are real and ongoing, he argued the courts were not suited to take such a case, handing a big win to oil companies.

In a 16-page opinion, William Alsup of Federal District Court in San Francisco sided with fossil fuel companies over the cities of Oakland and San Francisco. The two north California hubs had argued that Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell should financially support local projects meant to protect against the effects of global warming caused by the companies’ product: fossil fuels. Suggested projects included efforts like reinforcing coastlines against sea level rise and similar endeavors.

The cities also argued that the oil companies knew about the dangers of climate change for decades, but chose not to act, instead prioritizing their own interests. They argued that the companies’ actions had interfered with the use of property, making the products they sell a public nuisance.

Judge Alsup agreed with both Oakland and San Francisco that climate change is real. “This order accepts the science behind global warming,” the judge wrote, going on to say that climate science “dates back 120 years.”


Ultimately, however, he argued that assessing blame for the damage caused by climate change is a political decision, not a judicial one.

“The court will stay its hand in favor of solutions by the legislative and executive branches,” Alsup wrote, dismissing the lawsuit and arguing that fossil fuels played an important role in contributing to national development, regardless of their ultimate role in causing global warming.

The oil companies named in the suit applauded the ruling.

“Reliable, affordable energy is not a public nuisance but a public necessity,” said Chevron vice president and general counsel R. Hewitt Pate.


Climate advocates, by contrast, cautioned that the ruling could have sweeping implications in the fight to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in global warming.

“The case before the judge was never about how to solve global climate change but simply whether oil and gas producers should help San Francisco and Oakland pay for the costs of adapting to it,” Richard Wiles, executive director for the Center for Climate Integrity, said in a statement.

“By kicking the case to a do-nothing Congress and a climate denying White House,” Wiles continued, “the court essentially ruled that taxpayers alone should pay the massive costs of adapting to climate change.”

But Wiles also pointed to legal action against tobacco, lead, and other major industries that have seen some level of accountability after years of pushback. Environmental activists have previously drawn correlations between Big Tobacco and Big Oil, noting that both industries have worked to fund studies downplaying the health ramifications associated with their products.

“While we’re disappointed with the ruling, it is just [one] decision on a long road to climate justice that polluters’ own internal documents make clear they’ve known was coming for quite some time,” Wiles said.

Investigations have found that at least two companies named in the Oakland and San Francisco lawsuit, ExxonMobil and Shell, knew for decades based on internal research about the perils of climate change. Along with three coal producers, the companies named by the two California cities represent nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution.

Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said the city would consider appealing the ruling and would review all options.

“We believe 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,” Parker said.


A number of cities have filed similar lawsuits. They include other areas in California: Imperial Beach, San Mateo, Marin County, Richmond, Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz County, all of which are suing two dozen or more fossil fuel companies in addition to trade associations. New York City and a county in Washington have filed suit against the same companies named by Oakland and San Francisco, while two Colorado counties and the city of Boulder are suing both Suncor Energy and ExxonMobil.