Climate Change Judge's Homework: Was Industrialization Worth It?

(Bloomberg) -- Attorneys for the cities of Oakland and San Francisco and Chevron Corp. have homework from Judge William Alsup: prepare 10-page legal analyses on whether a century of American dependence on fossil fuels was worth the global warming it caused.

It’s due in a week.

The filings will follow almost three-hours of proceedings on Thursday in a San Francisco federal court, where the cities and the world’s biggest oil companies sparred over lawsuits seeking payment for infrastructure to protect against rising sea levels. Alsup, who’s weighing a dismissal bid by defendants including Chevron and four other companies, focused many of his questions on the “broader sweep of history,” and the crucial role oil played in America’s successes in both world wars and its subsequent economic boom.

“We needed oil and fossil fuels to get from 1859 to the present," said Alsup, 72, who hosted a five-hour climate-change tutorial in March. “Yes, that’s causing global warming. But against that negative, we need to weigh-in the larger benefits that have flowed from the use of fossil fuels. It’s been a huge, huge benefit."

Should oil companies have to pay damages for the harm? Would other companies have done the same thing if these five -- Chevron Corp., BP Plc, Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhilips and Royal Dutch Shell Plc -- hadn’t?

Climate Change Judge Wants to Know What Caused the Ice Age

These questions will be central to the forthcoming filings and Alsup’s decision over whether the case should proceed toward trial. (Only Chevron will respond because the other oil producers are seeking dismissal on jurisdictional grounds.)

“You’re asking for billions of dollars for something that hasn’t happened yet,” said Alsup during a back-and-forth with plaintiffs’ attorney Steve Berman. “We’re trying to predict how bad global warming will be in 75 years.”

The judge also challenged a BP attorney who argued against the findings of a 2013 report that quantified energy companies’ impact on global warming, suggesting the attorney may be deposed by plaintiffs. Here’s a look at the study’s findings:

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