Federal Court Dismisses New York City’s Climate Lawsuit

Published August 1, 2018

A federal judge dismissed New York City’s (NYC) lawsuit against five major oil companies to force them to help pay the city’s costs of dealing with climate change.

The ruling by Federal Judge John F. Keenan of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York marked the second defeat in less than a month for municipal governments seeking to use the courts to address problems allegedly caused by climate change. The first loss came in San Francisco in June when Judge William H. Alsup of the Federal District Court in San Francisco dismissed 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 his 23 page decision dismissing the New York City lawsuit, Keenan stated 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.”

Federal, Not State Affair

Keenan ruled New York’s state and federal common law claims were disallowed under the Clean Air Act. It would be “illogical” and violate U.S. Supreme Court precedents to allow the claims under state common law “when courts have found that these matters are areas of federal concern that have been delegated to the executive branch as they require a uniform, national solution,” the judge wrote, concluding, “the Clean Air Act displaces the City’s claims seeking damages for past and future domestic greenhouse gas emissions brought under federal common law.”

Keenan also concluded using domestic courts to litigate issues of international greenhouse gas emissions “would severely infringe upon the foreign-policy decisions that are squarely within the purview of the political branches of the U.S. government.”

In addition, Keenan determined, the lawsuit against the oil companies was unjustified because New York City itself contributes carbon dioxide emissions and benefits 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.

‘On a Losing Streak’

Climate alarmists have turned to the courts because the public and lawmakers have rejected their claims, says Tim Huelskamp, president of The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“For years, the environmental Left has failed in its effort to convince the American public manmade global warming is a crisis,” Huelskamp said. “Now even the last refuge of the Left and their big-city mayors—the federal judiciary—has once again rejected their unscientific arguments.

“Climate alarmists are on a losing streak that will continue because they don’t have the science, the economics, or the law on their side,” said Huelskamp.

Peter Ferrara, a senior fellow for Legal Affairs at The Heartland Institute, says the courts are right to refrain from imposing climate change policy through legal decisions.

“The courts are showing remarkable restraint on these lawsuits, which demonstrates alarmists have overreached with this poorly thought-out legal strategy,” Ferrara said. “These cases show alarmists have lost the argument with the American people, so they are now trying to go around voters to impose poverty and penury on them undemocratically.”

‘Seeking the Deepest Pockets’

Courts are acknowledging it is not their role to determine the appropriate response to climate change, says attorney Paul Driessen, a senior policy advisor with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute.

“Judge Keenan was absolutely right to dismiss New York City’s climate lawsuit,” said Driessen. “To the extent manmade climate change is a real problem, it is a global problem that must be dealt with globally, by America’s legislative and executive branches of government.

“For over a century, New York politicians, government workers, businesses, citizens, and tourists happily consumed the fossil fuels that made New York City an economic powerhouse,” Driessen said. “Our courts are not the proper venue to deal with climate change, and certainly not a district court responding to a single city’s financially motivated lawsuit seeking the deepest pockets.”

Driessen says Judge Keenan should award the defendant oil companies court costs in order to deter further such lawsuits.

“An appropriate next step would be for Keenan to charge these cities for court costs, attorney fees, and other expenses incurred by defendants in these cases,” said Driessen. “The dismissals in California and New York, combined with the award of associated legal fees to the defendants, should be a sufficient warning to Boulder, Colorado and Baltimore, Maryland not to waste their time and taxpayers’ money on these ridiculous, inappropriate lawsuits.”

Trying to Buy Silence?

Attorney Christopher Horner, a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says cities never really believed they could win these climate lawsuits, but instead were hoping the oil companies would view them as a nuisance and settle them to make them go away.

“All of these lawsuits are designed not to win, but to settle, with the prizes to be won being vows of silence and promises not to support opposition to the mayors’ political agendas,” Horner said. “Fortunately, the defendants weren’t eager to pay into the planned $200 billion pot to fund politicians’ big spending plans of payoffs to be distributed among select political constituencies.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute.


The Hon. John F. Keenan, “Decision in City of New York, Plaintiff against BP et al., Defendants,” July 19, 2018: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/john-f-keenan-united-states-district-judge-dismissal-of-nyc-climate-lawsuit