San Francisco sued Exxon because filing a lawsuit is easier than passing legislation
By Dallas Morning News Editorial
San Francisco is suing Exxon Mobil Corp., and you’ll never guess why: For producing the oil and gas we all use every day.
The suit is one of more than a dozen lawsuits against the oil industry by cities and states across the country, from California to Connecticut, that seek to directly connect specific oil companies to damage caused by climate change. The idea is the products oil and gas companies make contribute to climate change, which triggers rising sea levels and more intense storms, which threaten destruction. And local and state governments want Exxon and other oil companies to pay up.
The problem with these cases isn’t that climate change isn’t occurring or even whether burning fossil fuels contributes to that change. Both are true. The problem is that you can’t really hold a company that produces legal products liable for something as broad as climate change.
The reality is our country needs to decide how it wants to deal with energy and environmental needs. But state courts are no place for such a policy fight. That’s a job for the people we elect to represent us in Washington.
The lawsuits are a study in why it’s so difficult to implement practical, effective solutions to climate change. Politicians and activists have long found favor with their supporters by firing shots at oil companies, and in particular, Exxon. For some, the purpose seems to be to punish Big Oil, with little consideration of how this country can effectively reduce pollution.
In the back-and-forth lawsuits between Exxon and San Francisco, for example, in a ruling by the Texas Court of Appeals that denied Exxon presuit discovery, Judge Elizabeth Kerr lays out the strategy used by Matt Pawa, a climate change litigator, to round up clients among California cities to sue oil companies. The opinion describes a strategy to paint Exxon as a “corrupt institution.” Exxon didn’t do itself any favors in the past by casting doubt on the scientific consensus that was forming on climate change, but from our Texas perspective, it’s hard to understand why government officials would hire a lawyer who seeks to destroy local business.
The reality is, if a barrage of state and local lawsuits is allowed to peck away at oil companies until their business is ruined, we will be no closer to powering our lives with wind and solar energy. We would simply find ourselves paying a lot more money to fill our tanks with gasoline from foreign producers.
That’s not to say oil companies have no role to play in solving climate change. But in the end, we suspect that these cases will never really lead to a big payout on behalf of Big Oil. In our view, viable reform will only come from where we can hammer out reasonable policy compromises. In other words, in Congress and in our state legislatures. But then, we suppose, it’s a lot easier to file a lawsuit than to pass meaningful legislation.