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A dock sits damaged near the Statue of Liberty, which remained closed to the public six weeks after Hurricane Sandy on December 13, 2012 in New York City. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

NYC Vows to 'Keep Fighting' With Appeal After Federal Judge Dismisses Climate Suit Against Big Oil

"These cases are about who pays for seawalls in coastal communities like New York City: taxpayers or polluters?"

Jessica Corbett

New York City officials are vowing to appeal U.S. District Judge John Keenan's dismissal of a lawsuit filed by the city in January that aimed to hold five top oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell—financially liable for fueling the global climate crisis that is increasingly impacting coastal communities.

"These cases are about who pays for seawalls in coastal communities like New York City: taxpayers or polluters?"
—Richard Wiles, Center for Climate Integrity
"The mayor believes big polluters must be held accountable for their contributions to climate change and the damage it will cause New York City," Seth Stein, a spokesman for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, told Bloomberg. "We intend to appeal this decision and to keep fighting for New Yorkers who will bear the brunt of climate change."

Although Keenan acknowledged in his Thursday ruling (pdf) that "climate science clearly demonstrates that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change," the judge ultimately concluded that the suit was not allowed under federal common law and the Clean Air Act, and that "the city's claims interfere with separation of powers and foreign policy."

"There is a grave irony here," responded Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). "The fossil fuel company defendants claimed in court—and the judge apparently agreed—that it is entirely up to Congress and the president to address climate change. But these same defendants and their trade groups have fought successfully against even modest laws and regulations to cut the carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels that causes global warming."

Kimmell warned that "the climate threats facing New York City are overwhelming, and taxpayers are already paying to protect the city from future Sandy-scale damages. According to a recent UCS analysis, New York City residents can expect accelerating sea level rise that by 2045 will threaten some 3,000 homes that today represent $1.3 billion annually in local property taxes."

Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, emphasized that "the central question of these lawsuits is not how to stop global warming, but whether oil and gas producers should be forced to pay even a cent for the massive damage caused by its products. These cases are about who pays for seawalls in coastal communities like New York City: taxpayers or polluters?"

"Traditional public nuisance claims such as these are best suited for state courts where they have been resolved for over a century," Wiles noted. "We remain optimistic that the majority of these cases will end up in state court where they belong, and that taxpayers will ultimately prevail in their efforts to recover costs."

"In the face of this dangerous regression, it's ever more urgent for officials to take bold and immediate action: from state attorneys general investigating all that #ExxonKnew to elected officials like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo moving off fossil fuels to 100 percent renewables for all."
—May Boeve, 350.org

Responding to the development, 350.org executive director May Boeve declared, "In the face of this dangerous regression, it's ever more urgent for officials to take bold and immediate action: from state attorneys general investigating all that #ExxonKnew to elected officials like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo moving off fossil fuels to 100 percent renewables for all."

"This is a good reminder of how important it is that New York City also pledged to divest from fossil fuels," added 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben.

Keenan's ruling follows the June dismissal of a similar pair of suits brought by two cities in California, after which Rhode Island became the first state to file a climate liability lawsuit against 21 major oil companies. It also comes as Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and City Solicitor Andre Davis announced the city's new suit (pdf) on Friday.

According to a statement from the Pugh's office ahead of the 11am news conference, "the lawsuit cites damages associated with sea level rise and changes to the hydrologic cycle that include more frequent and severe heat waves, drought, and extreme precipitation events, all of which are caused by the companies' products."


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