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US attorneys urge court to reject cities' climate claims against oil companies

The Trump administration is urging a federal court to dismiss two cities' climate change lawsuits against five major oil companies on the grounds that the responsibility for addressing the issue lays with Congress and the executive branch.

The Cities of Oakland and San Francisco are seeking billions of dollars to cover the costs of combating the alleged effects of sea-level rise and other climate change-related impacts from greenhouse emissions that they claim the oil companies knew were linked but did not take steps to publicly acknowledge or address.

The outcome of the case (People of California v. BP PLC et al, 3:17-cv-06011) before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, particularly if the oil companies lose, has the potential to shape and influence broader policy questions concerning domestic and international energy production and use, attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice said in a May 10 filing siding with the oil companies. The Trump administration has taken steps to expand fossil fuel production on federal lands and waters.

At least 10 other U.S. municipalities have filed climate lawsuits against oil and gas companies. In addition, 21 youth coordinated by the group Our Children’s Trust are suing the Trump administration in federal court in Juliana v. United States to do more about climate change.

"By suggesting a judicial remedy for climate change divorced from any statutory construct, this case has the potential to lead the judiciary to improperly disrupt and interfere with the proper roles, responsibilities, and ongoing work of the Executive Branch and Congress in this area," the attorneys said. And that includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's implementation of the Clean Air Act and efforts of the US to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the attorneys said.

The lawyers said the case is not much different from a prior one involving a state's climate lawsuit against an electric utility (American Electric Power Co. Inc. v. Connecticut, 564). In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 held that corporations could not be sued in a public nuisance claim for greenhouse gas emissions under federal common law.

"If federal common law is a poor fit, then state law is even less suited to address the international scope of the climate change problem," the federal attorneys said in the latest suits.

The judge in the case, Judge William Alsup, in March took the unusual step of holding a hearing on the science of climate change and Alsup has scheduled a May 24 hearing to consider the oil companies' motion to dismiss the case.

The oil companies named in the lawsuits are BP, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp., and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.