New York's Global Warming Suit Against Oil Companies Tossed

(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. judge threw out New York’s lawsuit seeking to hold five of the world’s biggest oil companies financially responsible for contributing to climate change.

U.S. District Judge John Keenan dismissed the city’s claims against Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., BP Plc, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and ConocoPhillips, ruling that the federal Clean Air Act controls carbon dioxide emissions and blocks suits such as New York’s. The problem of climate change is for Congress and the Executive Branch to address, he said.

"The immense and complicated problem of global warming requires a comprehensive solution that weighs the global benefits of fossil fuel use with the gravity of the impending harms," Keenan wrote Thursday.

The ruling is the latest courtroom defeat for a legal strategy that sought to paint Big Oil as similar to Big Tobacco, with claims they pushed for increased sales while hiding the dangerous effects of their products on the planet. The companies won a similar ruling in June in which a federal judge threw out complaints by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, California, and also concluded the issue is best addressed by the other branches of government.

Trump Backs Big Oil, Argues Climate Case Could Force Paris Deal

“The Mayor believes big polluters must be held accountable for their contributions to climate change and the damage it will cause New York City,” Seth Stein, a spokesman for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, said in a statement. “We intend to appeal this decision and to keep fighting for New Yorkers who will bear the brunt of climate change.”

Shell and Exxon hailed the decision.

“Judge Keenan’s decision reaffirms our view that climate change is a complex societal challenge that requires sound governmental policy and is not an issue for the courts,” Shell said in a statement.

“We have said all along that addressing the risks of climate change is a serious global challenge that should be addressed by policy makers and not by the courts,” Exxon said in a statement.

BP declined to comment.

Human Role

ConocoPhillips said that while it recognizes the role of human activity in global warming, “we continue to manage and have successfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions in our operations and have integrated climate-related activities and goals into our business planning,” according to a statement.

Chevron said: “It is time for this waste of taxpayer money and judicial resources to end. Responsible leaders should engage in an honest conversation about the policy issues of climate change rather than filing lawsuits and vilifying the men and women who produce the reliable, affordable energy upon which we all depend.”

Exxon, Shell and BP have pushed back legally and in public relations campaigns that cast themselves as the solution to the world’s future energy needs. They’re making the case that low-cost energy is critical to human development and that natural gas in particular can help the transition towards renewable energy.

New York sued in January, claiming the five oil companies are responsible for more than 11 percent of all the atmospheric carbon and methane pollution since the Industrial Revolution. The city argued that greenhouse gases produced by the use of the industry’s products constitute a "public nuisance" -- an illegal threat to community welfare, such as a brothel, drug den or illegal hazardous waste dump -- and "private nuisance," an unreasonable interference with the use of someone else’s land.

The city argued that oil companies denied findings of climate-change scientists despite knowing that the use of gas and oil posed "grave risk" to the planet. New York also claims the oil companies are liable for trespass, or the intrusion of increased heat, flooding and sea-level rise onto city property.

The city tried to use state law to sue the companies to avoid running afoul of a 2011 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court against a suit that used federal public nuisance law to target five big power companies. New York said it should be reimbursed for costs to the city to deal with flooding, extreme weather conditions and other harm caused by climate change.

The case against the oil companies is City of New York v. BP Plc, 18-cv-00182, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.