New York City’s effort to hold oil and gas producers responsible for costs related to the environmental effects of their products faces an uphill battle as it tries to stretch the current law to address climate change. The biggest city in the U.S. sued BP Plc, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp., and Royal Dutch Shell Plc claiming they’re the world’s largest industrial contributors to climate change. Several California municipalities, including San Francisco and Oakland, previously brought similar cases. The city is seeking to build on successful legal challenges against producers of asbestos, cigarettes and lead paint. New York is using the centuries-old legal concepts of “public nuisance” — an illegal threat to community welfare, such as a brothel, drug den or illegal hazardous waste dump — and “private nuisance,” an unreasonable interference with the use of someone else’s land.
Both theories have been used to attack polluters, though not on the scale of global climate change. The challenge will be to persuade a judge to apply well-worn legal standards to a 21st Century problem. “There isn’t anything you can point to and say, ‘This is exactly like that case,’” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School in New York. “This is new.” Representatives of the energy companies pushed back. “This lawsuit is factually and legally meritless, and will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change,” Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall said in an email. Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell, said by email that climate-change policies “should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices,” and not by the courts.