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Supreme Court Superfund Ruling Sparks Feud in Climate Cases (1)

May 13, 2020, 2:42 PMUpdated: May 13, 2020, 7:31 PM

State and local governments are sparring with Chevron, Shell, and other major oil industry players over the implications of a recent Supreme Court decision on climate litigation.

Lawyers representing Rhode Island and several California cities and counties say the high court’s April 20 decision in Atlantic Richfield v. Christian bolsters their argument that they’re entitled to pursue claims in state court against fossil fuel companies for their role in climate change.

Industry lawyers pushed back Tuesday, arguing that the two issues have little in common.

Pollution in the Atlantic Richfield case was limited to Montana. But because the climate cases deal with greenhouse gases that cross state boundaries, the claims belong in federal court, said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP attorney representing Chevron Corp. and Chevron U.S.A.

The Supreme Court case dealt with state-law claims from Montana landowners affected by contamination from a Superfund site. The justices rejected arguments that the federal Superfund law preempted those claims.

Pieces of the high court’s ruling are likely to pop up in cases across the spectrum of environmental law, said Sara Colangelo, director of the environmental law program at Georgetown University.

“The state and federal interplay is a theme we see crop up over and over again in environmental lawsuits,” she said.

State-Law Claims

State and local governments have likewise raised state-law claims seeking money from fossil fuel companies for local harms related to global temperature rise. The cases are playing out in various stages in state and federal courts across the country.

The defendants in those cases have repeatedly argued that the plaintiffs’ state-law claims actually arise under federal law and are displaced by the Clean Air Act.

Lawyers for San Mateo County and other California local governments told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit the Atlantic Richfield decision “supports their position that its state-law claims do not ‘arise under’ federal law.” The Ninth Circuit is weighing whether to allow a set of climate liability cases to proceed in state court.

Rhode Island, represented by the same legal team, echoed that argument to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which is expected to hear oral arguments later this year.

The cases are Cty. of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp., 9th Cir., No. 18-15499, response filed 5/12/20 and Rhode Island v. Shell Oil Prod. Co., 1st Cir., No. 19-1818, response filed 5/12/20.

(Adds comment from Sara Colangelo in sixth and seventh paragraphs.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergenvironment.com; Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com

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