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Oil giants notch win in climate case

People walking along the beach
A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach in San Francisco. Photo: Marji Lang/LightRocket via Getty Images

A federal district court judge has tossed out a lawsuit against five major oil companies, including Exxon and Shell, brought by two California cities seeking compensation for the costs of dealing with rising seas.

Why it matters: The litigation by San Francisco and Oakland is an early and important battleground in a wider group of lawsuits that directly go after powerful oil companies over the effects of climate change.

What happened: Judge William Alsup's 16-page ruling Monday essentially said that executive and legislative processes are the best venues to decide how to balance the harms of global warming against the benefits that fossil fuels have provided, noting the "development of our modern world has literally been fueled by oil and coal."

The key lines from the decision: Alsup, a judge with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, said he "fully accepts the vast scientific consensus" that burning fossil fuels is warming the planet and accelerating sea level rise, but added:

"[Q]uestions of how to appropriately balance these worldwide negatives against the worldwide positives of the energy itself, and of how to allocate the pluses and minuses among the nations of the world, demand the expertise of our environmental agencies, our diplomats, our Executive, and at least the Senate."

What they're saying: "This is obviously not the ruling we wanted, but this doesn’t mean the case is over," said John Coté, a spokesman for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, in comments published in the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere. On the other side, major oil companies called the ruling appropriate:

  • "Judge Alsup’s decision reaffirms our view that climate change is a complex challenge that requires collaboration from all segments of society and not an issue for the courts," said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.
  • "We welcome the Court’s order dismissing these ill-conceived cases and we will continue to vigorously defend ourselves against all other similar claims," said BP spokesman Geoff Morrell.

Be smart: Attorney David Bookbinder of the non-profit think tank The Niskanen Center, co-counsel for the Colorado plaintiffs, told Axios last night that while "it is never good when a judge says the other side wins," the California decision is just one phase in a longer fight.

  • "This is round one of many, many rounds of decisions in these cases," he said. "By no means is it the end of the process."