Chevron, SF and Oakland present climate change tutorial before U.S. judge

A lawyer for Chevron Corp. told a federal judge in San Francisco Wednesday that the company “accepts the consensus of the scientific community” that climate change is real and is caused primarily by human activity.

“That has been Chevron’s position for a decade,” attorney Theodore Boutrous told U.S. District Judge William Alsup.

Boutrous spoke at an unusual tutorial session scheduled by Alsup in connection with two lawsuits filed against San Ramon-based Chevron and four other oil and gas companies by San Francisco and Oakland.

The cities claim the corporations created a public nuisance by promoting the use of oil and natural gas while knowing that the fuels lead to the “grave danger” of global warming and rising sea levels.

They also claim the companies engaged in public relations campaigns to downplay the risks in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The suits ask for financial compensation, possibly in the billions of dollars, to pay for seawalls and other infrastructure to protect people and property against rising sea levels and global warming.

Alsup did not issue any rulings during the session, but is expected to schedule a hearing later this spring on a bid by the five companies for dismissal of the case.

The companies claim in a motion filed Tuesday that the case doesn’t belong in federal court.

“There’s no doubt that warming is a global issue that requires global debate and engagement,” Boutrous told Alsup. “This is not a case about whether global warming exists. It is about whether a court like this one is the right way to deal with it.”

Tutorial sessions are occasionally used by judges to gain background on scientifically or technologically complex cases. For this session, Alsup asked for information about the history of scientific study of climate change and current science on global warming and sea level rise. He gave each side two hours.

Boutrous said Chevron is relying on a 2013 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international agency that synthesizes research by hundreds of scientists.

He said Chevron accepts the report’s conclusion that “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

But Boutrous sought to emphasize parts of the IPCC report and other reports that showed uncertainty in predicting the extent of future temperature and sea-level increases.

In one example, Boutrous showed a 2017 state of California report that showed a 96 percent chance of a rise of one foot in the sea level at the Golden Gate entrance to San Francisco Bay by 2100, a 70 percent chance of a 2-foot rise and a 28 percent chance of a 3-foot rise.

But Alsup commented, “In other words, there’s a 50-50 chance of something between two and three feet. That’s still a lot of water, isn’t it?”

In addition to Chevron, the other companies sued are BP PLC, ConocoPhillips Co., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC. The other companies did not make presentations today, but Alsup instructed them to tell him within two weeks of any Chevron statements they disagree with. Otherwise, they will be deemed to agree, he said.

While Chevron chose a lawyer for its tutorial, San Francisco and Oakland selected three scientists.

Gary Griggs, an earth sciences professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, noted that the 2017 California report said the rate of ice melting in Antarctica and Greenland has increased and that “waiting for absolute certainty is not an option.”

Griggs said the effects of sea level rises are worsened by other phenomena such as king tides and El Nino events.

He showed pictures of the San Francisco Embarcadero flooded during a king tide and a hypothetical map showing that more than half of Oakland International Airport would be submerged if the sea level rises by 3 feet.

University of Illinois atmospheric science professor Don Wuebbles, who contributed to the 2013 IPCC report, said, “The science did not stop at 2012. There is a lot we have learned in the past five years.”

Wuebbles said predictions are now more certain and the rate of increase in sea level is higher than at any time in the last 2,800 years.

“Our projections are a rise of one to 4 feet by the end of the century, but it could be as high as 8 feet,” he said.

Alsup has set a briefing schedule for the companies’ motion to dismiss that could extend to the end of April, meaning that a hearing would not be held until May.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement, “What we saw today was one oil company begrudgingly accepting the scientific consensus while trying to overemphasize the extent of scientific uncertainty.

“These companies have made enormous profits while putting our cities in harm’s way. Now the bill has come due. It’s time for them to pay for the seawalls and other infrastructure needed to protect San Francisco and Oakland,” Herrera said.

-Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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