San Francisco’s climate lawsuit against Chevron hit a major snag after the oil company leveled a series of potentially fatal blows to activists accusing it of contributing to global warming.
Chevron claims the plaintiffs who burn fossil fuels during their everyday lives are the culprits responsible for ratcheting up emission levels. San Francisco is among a handful of California cities suing the oil company for supposedly contributing to climate change.
“It is undisputed that Defendants did not control the fossil fuels at the time they allegedly created the nuisance — i.e., when they were combusted—and thus cannot be held liable,” Chevron said in a March 23 memo asking the court to dismiss the city’s lawsuit. The highly publicized climate tutorial quizzing Chevron and the other litigants about the science behind global warming overshadowed the memo.
“Plaintiffs’ claims depend on an attenuated causal chain including billions of intervening third parties — i.e., fossil fuel users like Plaintiffs themselves,” the company’s memo noted before adding that the government had ostensibly given Chevron a license to produce oil and natural gas.
“[N]umerous federal statutes authorize, encourage, and sometimes even require the production of fossil fuels. California law also authorizes and encourages Defendants’ conduct,” Chevron stated. The litigation has hit several speed bumps since it was first filed in March – one legal analyst claimed San Francisco officials have acted inconsistently on the issue of climate change.
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Because these San Francisco politicians made dire climate change predictions during litigation against energy companies but not in bond offerings, they know they’re burned, New York University law professor Richard Epstein said in a Feb. 21 interview with Legal Newsline
“My guess is they know they’re going to lose those lawsuits,” Epstein, who also directs NYU’s Classical Liberal Institute, told Legal Newsline. “I certainly believe they will.” If San Francisco and Oakland decide to not back out of the lawsuits and instead move forward, he added, “the cross examination is going to be brutal.”
His pessimism was based on reports showing the cities’ inconsistent positions on climate change. San Francisco’s lawsuit suggested the city faces “imminent risk of catastrophic storm surge flooding” — yet a 2017 general-obligation bond offering claimed officials are “unable to predict whether sea-level or rise or other impacts of climate change… will occur.”
Attorneys representing the cities stand to earn a huge payday if their litigation is successful. Class action firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is handling lawsuits for San Francisco, Oakland and New York City, on a contingency fee basis. Cities pay law firms no upfront cost in exchange for a percentage of any winnings or settlement.
Hagens Berman stands to earn millions, possibly billions, of dollars in contingency fees depending on the total winnings, should San Francisco, Oakland or New York City win their global warming suits against oil companies. All told, these three cities are asking oil companies to hand over many billions of dollars.
But things could get dicey for California if the lawsuits miss their mark. Nearly 40 percent of the state’s crude oil is produced inside the Golden State — a reality that could slam officials if Exxon, Chevron and others being sued decide to pull out of California. The oil industry also contributes $66 billion of gross income for 2.7 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.
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