Opinion: Why Oakland, SF should drop climate change lawsuits
By: Ken Paxton
If you believe the most extreme climate change activists and a handful of liberal mayors in California and around the country, they have a solution to global warming all figured out. Unfortunately, their remedy is yet another effort to abuse the law, our courts, and make billions while they’re at it.
The California cities of San Francisco, Oakland and a few others recently filed lawsuits against five oil companies seeking billions of dollars in compensation for causing climate change — yes, all by themselves. These cities hope to leverage local, “nuisance” ordinances to claim damages against our nation’s energy producers. The mayors want money — lots of money — from a handful of energy companies to pay for projects such as sea walls or elevating buildings.
My office and state attorneys in 14 other states strongly disagree and we recently filed an amicus brief, saying these lawsuits intentionally destroy the spirit of local “nuisance” ordinances and cannot be applied to global climate change in this manner. In addition, our brief argues that singling out five energy companies to be solely responsible for damages associated with climate change could “…cost several billion dollars and seriously impact defendants’ ability to provide energy to the rest of the country.”
Further, our brief notes how the complex and far-reaching issue of global warming is a policy issue for Congress and for regulatory agencies such as the EPA. Local courts have no jurisdiction in such matters, and the litigatory tidal wave created by thousands of mayors filing individual lawsuits would be disastrous for our nation’s court system.
“Indeed, such judicial resolution would trample Congress’s carefully calibrated process of cooperative federalism where states work in tandem with (the Environmental Protection Agency) to administer the federal Clean Air Act,” our brief states.
Likening their cause to action taken against tobacco companies in the 1980s, the cities claim that energy companies are causing present and possibly future harm due to carbon emissions from fossil fuels.
Comparing tobacco to energy is – as we say in Texas – “Slicker than a boiled onion.” Tobacco companies sell products that are clearly non-essential. Oil and natural gas companies produce and distribute vital energy supplies necessary to maintain our quality of life, industrial growth, transportation, etc. Without fossil fuels, virtually every aspect of life comes to a grinding halt.
Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general and one of the attorneys involved in the tobacco litigation, disputes a comparison between tobacco and energy. Norton wrote in an editorial for the Denver Post, “tobacco use is not an integral part of society in the same way as energy, so it is harder to argue energy production is an unreasonable activity or a nuisance.”
Finally, the mayors of these cities blindly ignore the fact their own townships are large emitters of greenhouse gases. City-run transportation, industrial complexes, port terminals and airports produce millions of tons of carbon each year. Why don’t these mayors take punitive action against their own airport authorities to force lower carbon emissions? Perhaps it’s because airports in San Francisco and Oakland serve more than 60 million passengers a year and generate more than $12 billion in annual revenue and port facilities take in millions more.
It’s just easier to go after a handful of oil and natural gas companies as the culprits responsible for an entire planet’s worth of climate change.
If left unchecked, more lawsuits will come. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently filed suit against oil companies, alleging they helped cause Hurricane Sandy and should pay for storm damage prevention. In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards teamed up with a group of trial lawyers who recently filed a slew of lawsuits on behalf of six parishes, alleging that oil and gas companies single-handedly cause coastal erosion in the state—disregarding activity by heavy industry, the Army Corps of Engineers’ activities on the state’s coastline, and natural processes.
The mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, New York City and other cities should be honest about how their townships and our nation rely on fossil fuels. These mayors should work with energy producers to help lower carbon emissions in a responsible way.
Lawsuits filed by cash-hungry mayors who hope to reap billions to balance their municipal books are a blatant abuse of the courts. We are all energy consumers and the companies that produce affordable, reliable energy should not be unfairly vilified or forced to defend themselves in unjustified lawsuits.
Ken Paxton is the Attorney General of Texas.