Steve Forbes: Lefty mayors' frivolous climate change lawsuits need to stop

Who or what is actually responsible for “global warming” and how should the individuals, businesses or industry sectors be held accountable? If you listen to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the California mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond and others, the entire blame rests exclusively with our oil and natural gas industry. Conveniently, these money-hungry mayors and their equally greedy trial lawyers accuse only the largest, most profitable oil and natural gas companies of wrongdoing.

Their municipal lawsuits allege that global warming is a local, “public nuisance” issue and the sole perpetrators of our planet’s “warming” are no farther away than the local refinery or natural gas plant. Sound unfair? Add this insane reasoning to the fact that dozens of other industrialized nations are apparently blameless for any of the planet’s climate-related woes. Operators of airlines, asphalt factories, cement plants, auto dealerships and heavy machinery in New York or California are likewise off the hook for any climate change-related issues. 

These lefty mayors suggest that because the earth’s climate is changing, they might incur expenses years down the road for possible sea level rise, storms, etc., so they want our oil and natural gas producers to pay hundreds of billions in undefined damages.

A U.S. district judge in California scheduled a hearing to listen to both sides of the debate in a “tutorial” on climate change. While the energy industry presented logical facts, trial lawyers representing these liberal metropolises offered a tried-and-failed retread of legal claptrap. Importantly, the judge dismissed the notion of a conspiracy by energy companies to suppress global warming science.  Referring to one of the documents he reviewed, the judge said, “I read that paragraph 67 the same way; that there was a conspiratorial document within the defendants about how they knew good and well that global warming was right around the corner.  And I said: ‘Okay. That's going to be a big thing. I want to see it.’ Well, it turned out it wasn't quite that.”

In 2011, six Midwest power companies faced the same legal nonsense. The cases were tossed by the U.S Supreme Court, with liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the majority opinion in the 8-to-0 decision.

A few years ago, several liberal state attorneys general attempted to sue Exxon for alleged damages associated with climate change, attracting fawning praise from the liberal press. But headlines often fall short of actual facts in court and in every claim, the state AG’s quietly retreated from their cases or let them fall inactive.   

In 2011, six Midwest power companies faced the same legal nonsense. The cases were tossed by the U.S Supreme Court. Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in the 8-to-0 decision which ruled that American corporations cannot be sued under local “nuisance” ordinances regarding greenhouse gas emissions as the climate change issue falls under the jurisdiction of Congress and the EPA, which, according to Ginsburg, are “better equipped to do the job than individual district judges issuing ad hoc, case-by-case decisions.” Ginsburg warned that turning the jurisdiction of climate change over to local courts would create a quagmire of dissenting legal opinions across the country and allow an individual district judge to become a “super EPA.”

The truth is America should embrace its energy industry and halt these unfounded efforts to sabotage our vital energy sector. The surge of American shale oil and natural gas production has fundamentally improved the U.S. economy and led the way in lowering CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases.

In 2005, after the nation’s shale drilling revolution began, C02 emissions began to fall. U.S. energy-related carbon emissions fell 14 percent below the 2005 level in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). It wasn’t due to renewable fuels that still represent less than 5 percent of our national energy grid. Our nation’s drop in C02 emissions came as our manufacturing and energy sectors began a decisive shift toward natural gas. The market’s move to relatively clean-burning natural gas has been so profound that even if Barack Obama had never decreed the Clean Power Plan, the United States would have  already met the CPP’s carbon dioxide reduction target for 2025, according to a recent Carnegie Mellon University report.

Our U.S. oil and gas industry has invested $90 billion on emission control technologies between 2000 to 2014, according to a report by T2 and Associates. Just between 2013 and 2014 alone, the industry directly reduced emissions by the equivalent of 55.5 million metric tons of CO2 – equal to taking 11.8 million cars off of the road. Methane emissions from venting and flaring associated with onshore petroleum production declined 40 percent just between 2015 and 2016, according to a new EPA report. The five biggest energy companies -- Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Chevron Corp., BP Plc and Total SA -- collectively curbed combined emissions an average of 13 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

These city officials should face securities fraud charges because they’ve been caught telling bond investors how any risks associated with climate change in their cities are hardly measurable, while in court they argue how the sky is falling. Sadly, this matter will likely have to go back to the Supreme Court after the left leaning 9th Circuit Court of Appeals surprised no one by allowing these state-by-state cases to advance.

 In the meantime, our energy producers will have to fend off more groundless charges as they work to provide affordable, reliable energy for us all.    

Steve Forbes is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Media. His latest book, "Reviving America: How Repealing Obamacare, Replacing the Tax Code, and Reforming the Fed will Restore Hope and Prosperity".