Several California communities suing the oil industry over climate change got welcome news Tuesday when a federal judge said their cases could move forward in state court.
The five cities and three counties, which include San Francisco, are seeking billions of dollars from fossil fuel producers in first-of-its-kind litigation that alleges the companies caused pricey climate problems, including rising seas and extreme weather. But the lawsuits, originally filed separately in state court, have been clouded by the question of whether the subject matter is more appropriate for federal court, where the cases may also be harder to win.
San Francisco’s suit against five petroleum giants, which was combined with one from Oakland, was moved to federal court at the urging of the defendants, only to be dismissed two years ago. Tuesday’s decision by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals resurrects the cases of both cities. The litigation targets Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell.
“We’re pleased that we can proceed with this case to protect our residents, workers and businesses from the costs and damage these fossil fuel companies knowingly imposed on our communities,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in an email to The Chronicle. “It is time for these companies to pay their fair share.”
The Ninth Circuit Court also validated a separate ruling by another federal judge who allowed California courts to take up climate cases submitted by the counties of San Mateo, Marin and Santa Cruz and the cities of Richmond, Santa Cruz and Imperial Beach (San Diego County).
The eight California communities behind the suits allege that oil executives sold products that they knew warmed the atmosphere and caused global havoc. Their cases, the first of which were filed three years ago, have sparked similar litigation by cities and counties across the nation, from Hawaii to New York. While the lawsuits target different companies, they all seek financial help building seawalls and strengthening infrastructure in the face of climate change.
None of the legal efforts has yet to be deliberated on their merits. Most have been saddled by procedural matters, with the overarching question of whether the suits involve issues governed by federal law and hence should be heard in federal court.
The oil industry, in each of the cases, has argued that the Clean Air Act is responsible for regulating the emissions of heat-trapping gases and, as such, damage claims in state court should give way to the federal legislation.
“They present substantial issues of national law and policy which makes them inappropriate for state law,” said Sean Comey, spokesman for San Ramon-based Chevron, in an email Tuesday. “In whichever forum the cases are ultimately determined, these factually and legally unsupported claims do nothing to sensibly address the significant national economic, legal and policy issues presented by climate change.”
In Tuesday’s ruling, the panel of appellate judges supported arguments by the California communities that say state public nuisance laws apply to the cases. The eight cities and counties have argued that their issue is not whether federal laws were broken but simply whether oil companies should be held liable for the effects of their products.
The Ninth Circuit Court joins the Fourth Circuit Court, which took up a climate lawsuit by the city of Baltimore, in ruling that the state court is the appropriate venue. The defendants in the Baltimore case have asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the appellate ruling. A similar request is possible following Tuesday’s decision in California.
“This is obviously a great day for the plaintiffs,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, which supports litigation to combat global warming. “These cases should be in state court.”
Wiles and others have likened the climate lawsuits to the legal action against the tobacco industry. Cigarette manufacturers were accused of hiding the health impacts of smoking and were ultimately forced to make big payouts under public nuisance laws.
San Francisco officials have estimated that rising seas at the hands of climate change have put $10 billion of public property and as much as $39 billion of private land in the city at risk.
Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander
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