Federal Judge Dismisses California Climate Lawsuit

Published June 27, 2018

U.S. District Judge William Alsup dismissed a climate liability lawsuit brought by the cities of Oakland and San Francisco against five oil companies.

Alsup’s June 25 decision partly followed the reasoning laid out in a friend of the court brief from Republican attorneys general from 15 states, led by Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill.

Officials of the two cities argued the companies should be held liable for harms allegedly caused by climate change and the costs of cities’ responses to the changing climate.

Joining Hill in seeking dismissal of the case were the attorneys general of Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Constitutional, Liability Concerns

The AGs stated numerous reasons Alsup should dismiss the lawsuit, including that the cities were treading upon power specifically delegated to the U.S. Congress in the Constitution and that the suits could make cities and states around the country vulnerable to similar claims.

The AGs argued Oakland and San Francisco were attempting to regulate interstate commerce and international trade, a function the U.S. Constitution assigns solely to Congress.

“Imposing such financial consequences on business activity contravenes Congress’ exclusive power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce,” the brief states. “Plaintiffs’ objections to fossil fuel use are based in public policy, not law, and are thus not appropriate for judicial resolution.”

In his ruling, Alsup noted Congress and the President were legally empowered to address the issues addressed in the lawsuit.

“[P]laintiffs’ claims require a balancing of policy concerns. … Importantly, ‘[t]he political branches, not the Judiciary, have the responsibility and institutional capacity to weigh foreign-policy concerns,'” Alsup writes, citing a ruling from a previous case.

Cited Fossil Fuel Benefits

Alsup’s ruling noted the benefits of fossil fuel use, which he said is essential to modern life.

“We must weigh this positive: our industrial revolution and the development of our modern world has literally been fueled by oil and coal,” Alsup writes. “Without those fuels, virtually all of our monumental progress would have been impossible.

“All of us have benefitted,” Alsup’s decision continued. “Having reaped the benefit of that historic progress, would it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded?”

The AGs’ brief reflected this point, arguing a decision in the cities’ favor would subject cities and states to class-action lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages.

“[Cities are suing companies for] nothing more specific than promoting the use of fossil fuels,” the AGs wrote. “As utility owners, power plant operators, and generally significant users of fossil fuels (through facilities, vehicle fleets and highway construction, among other functions), States and their political subdivisions themselves may be future defendants in similar actions.”

Climate Lawsuits ‘Shake Down’

Climate lawsuits against oil companies are illegitimate and should end, says Tim Huelskamp, president of The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“The American economy runs on energy freedom and the rule of law,” said Huelskamp. “These lawsuits by the Left are nothing more than bald-faced attempts to shake down legitimate American businesses.

“Judge Alsup did the right thing by tossing out this climate shakedown lawsuit,” Huelskamp said. “As Alsup noted in his decision, the benefits of fossil fuels far outweigh any costs. This should put an end to these ridiculous and wasteful lawsuits against, essentially, modernity.”

‘Not for Cities to Decide’

Marc Rylander, director of communications for the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, says the lawsuit against oil companies was nothing more than mayors grandstanding for their political base while attempting to set national policy.

“This comes down to a handful of the most liberal mayors in California attempting to direct policy for the entire country,” Rylander told Environment & Climate News. “It’s disingenuous to claim that fossil fuels are a public nuisance when virtually everything in the cities would come to an abrupt halt without the fuel they provide.

“Balancing climate change and energy needs is a topic Congress tackled with the Clean Air Act, which established a model for the federal government to work with the states,” said Rylander. “This policy issue is not for cities to decide. Indeed, it is nothing more than a ploy for politically ambitious mayors to score cheap political points.”

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


Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill et al., “State AGs’ Amicus Brief in Oakland/San Francisco Climate Lawsuit,” April 19, 2018: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/state-ags-amicus-brief-in-oaklandsan-francisco-climate-lawsuit

Official Connections

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill: https://www.in.gov/attorneygeneral/2354.htm; https://www.in.gov/attorneygeneral/3063.htm