Supreme Court Deals Blow to Oil Companies Being Sued for Climate Change

The Supreme Court declined to hear appeals by major oil companies to move climate-change lawsuits against them from state to federal courts, with the latter being far more skeptical of such suits.

Oil companies such as Chevron Corporation and Shell Corporation are facing a wave of public-nuisance lawsuits across the country alleging varied environmental harms from the emissions of greenhouse gases. Some of the plaintiffs include the State of Rhode Island, the City of Baltimore, and Boulder County, Colo.

The state and local plaintiffs were backed by the Biden administration in seeking to keep the lawsuits in state courts, a reversal from the Trump administration’s position. The state-level litigation represents a major threat to the oil industry and has been likened to state litigation filed against tobacco companies in the 1990s and more recent cases against pharmaceutical companies accused of fueling the opioid epidemic.

An example of such a case is Baltimore’s 2018 suit filed in Maryland state court, in which the city said it has suffered climate-change-related injuries from rising sea levels and extreme weather. The city is seeking to recover monetary damages from companies who have allegedly contributed to climate change and misled the public.

Theodore Boutrous, who represents Chevron in several of the disputes, told the Wall Street Journal that the proper venue is the federal level.

“Climate change is an issue of national and global magnitude that requires a coordinated federal policy response, not a disjointed patchwork of lawsuits in state courts across multiple states,” said Boutrous. “These wasteful lawsuits in state courts will do nothing to advance global climate solutions, nothing to reduce emissions, and nothing to address climate-related impacts.”

The oil companies have also argued that these lawsuits are not the proper way to combat climate change.

“Addressing a challenge as big as climate change requires a truly collaborative, society-wide approach. We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government, supported by action from all business sectors, including ours, and from civil society, is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress,” read a statement Shell Corporation has sent out in response to several climate-change lawsuits.

A number of groups focused on protecting consumers have said that public-nuisance lawsuits are being weaponized to accomplish liberal policy goals.

“Over time, left-leaning officials at the state and local level have worked with trial lawyers and liberal advocacy groups to push the boundaries of public nuisance claims. State and local governments have turned to public-nuisance claims to address an ever-expanding range of issues, including climate change, opioids, vaping, and more. Their goal has been to use public-nuisance claims to implement public policy through the courts,” read a report from the Alliance for Consumers.

“Because trial lawyers often work off contingency fee arrangements, in which they receive a percentage of any financial award in the case, public-nuisance suits have become a substantial financial windfall for the law firms pressing these cases, beyond the benefit they get from pushing their preferred public policy positions through the courts,” the report continued, adding that the windfall is often poured into left-leaning political committees and campaigns, creating a feedback loop.

In a recent op-ed, law professor Donald Kochan concurred that these lawsuits are not designed to benefit taxpayers or the environment. The suits will create cascading problems, he said, if they prevail.

“Think about what would happen if these cities prevailed and obtained damages. Hundreds of cities would then follow. Our judicial system would be overrun with wild claims of existing or future damages from global warming. And we would assuredly see decades of conflicting rulings, inconsistent damage awards handed out by dozens of state courts with endless appeals,” he wrote.

“Singling out a handful of domestic energy producers for punishment while ignoring other industries and carbon emitters — including the plaintiffs in these cases — is simply not right or fair,” he added.

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