by H. Sterling Burnett
In July, federal Judge John F. Keenan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed New York City's lawsuit against five major oil companies. The lawsuit sought to force the oil companies to help pay NYC's alleged costs associated with climate change.
Keenan's ruling was the second victory against municipal governments seeking to use the judiciary to address problems purportedly caused by climate change. The first triumph came in June, when Judge William H. Alsup of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco threw out a similar lawsuit against the same five companies — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell — in a case brought by Oakland and San Francisco.
In the 23-page decision dismissing New York City's lawsuit, Keenan wrote climate change must be addressed by the executive branch and Congress, not by the courts. Although climate change "is a fact of life," Keenan wrote, "the serious problems caused thereby are not for the judiciary to ameliorate. Global warming and solutions thereto must be addressed by the two other branches of government."
In addition, Keenan determined NYC's lawsuit is unjustified because the city contributed carbon dioxide emissions and benefited from fossil-fuel use.
"(I)t is not clear that Defendants' fossil fuel production and the emissions created therefrom have been an 'unlawful invasion' in New York City, as the City benefits from and participates in the use of fossil fuels as a source of power, and has done so for many decades," wrote Keenan.
Climate policy is solely within the domain of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, as two federal judges have amply demonstrated in their written decisions.
However, states and cities seem intent on banging their heads up against this legal brick wall.
On July 2, just a week after Alsup threw out a climate lawsuit brought by Oakland and San Francisco, Rhode Island filed a lawsuit against oil companies to recover the costs from supposed climate change. On July 20, just a day after Keenan dismissed NYC's lawsuit, Baltimore sued oil companies for climate change expenses in Maryland. Furthermore, New York City, Oakland, and San Francisco plan to appeal their cases' dismissals.
Climate Change Lawsuits: A Waste
Apparently, these cities and states have no serious problems — such as crime, budget shortfalls, and education woes — for which the resources devoted to these lawsuits might be better used, or their leaders just don't care if they waste taxpayers' money on frivolous lawsuits. It seems as though the several attorneys general pursuing these pointless lawsuits are so caught up in the grip of climate mania, they just can't let go, the law be damned.
Or perhaps the lawsuits are simply an attempted shakedown of an industry with deep pockets. These cities and states desperately hope oil companies will ultimately settle out of court, agreeing to pay billions of dollars and promising not to fight climate change legislation in the future.
Furthermore, these out-of-touch environmental zealots want to force oil companies to shift their investments from fossil fuels to politically connected, highly subsidized green-energy power sources. Oil companies have not succumbed to these outrageous demands yet, and it seems unlikely they will any time soon, with their continued profitability and their very existence at stake — as well as two legal wins under their belt.
It is long past time to end this game of legal whack-a-mole. Alsup and Keenan should require cities to pay the court costs, attorney fees, and other expenses incurred by oil companies thus warning municipal and state climate zealots seeking big paydays there is a price to pay for wasting courts' time.
Burnett, Ph.D. is a senior fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.