NEW YORK — New York City's attempt to hold five of the world's biggest oil companies responsible for damage from global warming didn't seem to impress a judge during oral arguments Wednesday to determine if a lawsuit can proceed.
U.S. District Judge John F. Keenan questioned the city's standing to bring the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages from BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell.
At one point, Keenan asked a city lawyer if New York City had investments in the companies it was suing. At another, he noted the many cars owned by the police department and the many trucks operated by fire and sanitation personnel.
And at least twice, the judge asked if the city was hiding an emissions case in language meant to seem it was instead targeting the companies' production and sales operations.
"Aren't you trying to dress a wolf up in sheep's clothing?" he asked attorney Matthew Pawa, who represented the city.
"Aren't the plaintiffs using the product?" Keenan asked. "Does the city have clean hands?"
"Yes, the city uses fossil fuels," Pawa responded.
Pawa recalled successful litigation to hold tobacco companies responsible for the harms of cigarette smoking and said he was asking Keenan "to apply very old law to new facts."
The judge did not rule immediately.
The January lawsuit came after similar litigation was filed by the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Cruz in California.
Theodore Boutrous, arguing for the oil companies, called global warming an "important, thorny issue" and added that "lawsuits are not the way to deal with this."
Boutrous said the lawsuit was trying to hold the companies responsible for the "way civilization and humankind has developed over the ages ... back to the industrial revolution." He suggested it was an issue better left up to Congress.
If the lawsuit survives, Boutrous said, it would encourage similar litigation.
"It really would involve everybody suing everybody for living our lives the way we do and using the power sources that we have," he said.