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Sean D. Reyes
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Oakland & San Francisco Climate Change Case Dismissed

Heads up. Our state was part of a significant victory for the separation of powers doctrine last week.  Fifteen states, including Utah, prevailed in their support of a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit filed by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland against five energy companies. The lawsuit claimed that the companies, which produce fossil-fuels, were a “public nuisance” due to their contributions to global warming.  

In the brief, the states claimed the following:

  1. To permit federal adjudication of claims of abatement fund remedies would disrupt carefully calibrated state regulatory schemes devised by politically accountable officials.
  2. Federal courts should not use public nuisance theories to confound state and federal political branches’ legislative and administrative processes by establishing emissions policy…on a piecemeal, ad hoc, case-by-case basis under the aegis of federal common law.

Put simply, it means that cities and courts should not be able to dictate national energy policy through lawsuits. Rather, those decisions should stay within the appropriate governing agencies and legislative processes (such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act).

The states explicitly stated that exercising wise stewardship of resources and land is vitally important. Due to that importance, the processes and regulations put in place to accomplish that goal need to be done through the “process of cooperative federalism where the States work in tandem with EPA to administer the federal Clean Air Act.” 

In dismissing the lawsuit, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California cited U.S. Supreme Court precedent finding that the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency’s corresponding authority to set emission standards have displaced federal common law nuisance claims pertaining to emissions. The district court also cited the separation of powers doctrine, stating that courts should exercise restraint in matters best left to other branches of government. 

You can read the brief by the coalition of states here, and the Order Granting Motion to Dismiss here.

To track the progress of the entire case, check out Columbia Law School’s climate change litigation site.


Photo: Karsten Wurth on Unsplash