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EDITORIAL: Federal judge tosses out oil company shakedown

The Supreme Court stole the judicial headlines last week, wrapping up its term with a number of high-profile decisions. But a ruling by a federal judge in San Francisco deserves similar attention.

The case involved a money grab by the trial bar and the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, which were seeking to shake down oil companies for billions of dollars under the guise of punishing them for the future costs of global warming. It was a test run for similar extortion rackets in blue coastal states — New York City and other California jurisdictions have already filed copycat lawsuits.

Federal Judge William Alsup, however, wasn’t buying. Last week, he tossed out the Bay Area suits, holding that the legislative and executive branches were better equipped than the courts to deal with the policy consequences of climate change. Of equal importance, he rejected the legal reasoning of the plaintiffs and scolded progressives who are apparently oblivious to the relationship between prosperity and abundant energy.

“Our industrial revolution and the development of our modern world have literally been fueled by oil and coal,” he noted. “Without those fuels, virtually all of our monumental progress would have been impossible. … Is it really fair, in light of those benefits, to say that the sale of fossil fuels was unreasonable?”

Judge Alsup, a Bill Clinton appointee, previously noted that while San Francisco officials were attempting to force the major oil producers to compensate the city for projects intended to prevent coastal flooding, they were telling potential investors that “the city is unable to predict whether sea-level rise or other impacts from climate change … will occur.” It doesn’t get more duplicitous than that.

The cities used the state common law theory of public nuisance to advance the lawsuits, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that the federal Clean Air Act pre-empts such efforts. To get around the high court ruling, they argued that “the mere production and promotion of fossil fuels create a public nuisance,” The Wall Street Journal reported. But, as Chevron attorney R. Hewitt Pate pointed out, “Reliable, affordable energy is not a public nuisance but a public necessity.”

The nation’s energy policy is certainly an important matter for public debate. But for green extremes to argue that the ledger for fossil fuel companies consists of nothing but destruction and despair is to willfully turn a blind eye to the massive human benefits and progress derived over the past 150 years from the use of cheap energy.

“We won the Second World War with fossil fuels,” Judge Alsup mused during the proceedings. “If we didn’t have fossil fuels, we would have lost that war and every other war.”

Indeed. Climate activists like to talk about the “external costs” of fossil fuels. But what would the costs have been to human civilization had those products not been developed and put to use, unleashing an era of economic advancement never before seen in recorded history? Judge Alsup deserves credit for seeing through this cynical cash grab.

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