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Supreme Court Won’t Halt Climate Cases Against Oil Companies (1)

Oct. 22, 2019, 5:31 PMUpdated: Oct. 22, 2019, 9:16 PM

State court cases targeting oil companies for their role in climate change are set to move forward after the Supreme Court on Oct. 22 rebuffed the industry’s efforts to halt them.

The high court denied applications from BP Plc, Chevron Corp., Suncor Energy Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., and other companies seeking to freeze proceedings in high-stakes cases from Baltimore, Rhode Island, and Colorado municipalities that accuse the industry of creating a public nuisance by producing and selling planet-warming fossil fuels.

The full court—except Justice Samuel Alito, who didn’t participate in the decision—denied a request from oil companies defending against the Baltimore case. Justice Stephen Breyer denied a similar petition in the Rhode Island case a few hours later, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor then denied a request to halt a case from Boulder, Boulder County, and San Miguel County.

Breyer oversees emergency filings from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which includes Rhode Island. Sotomayor oversees filings from the Tenth Circuit, which includes Colorado.

The decisions are victories for local governments seeking to put oil companies on the hook for the impacts of climate change. Baltimore and Rhode Island can now make their legal arguments in state courts, seek internal documents from the oil producers, and interview executives.

“It is also another step towards justice for the communities harmed by the fossil fuel companies’ actions, who are suffering because that industry continues to hide behind lawyers, lobbyists, public relations firms, and an avalanche of misinformation,” Andre M. Davis, Baltimore’s top lawyer, said in a statement.

Sher Edling LLP attorney Vic Sher, who is representing Baltimore and several other jurisdictions in climate nuisance cases, praised the Supreme Court’s refusal to get involved, and said “it’s time for these cases to get ready for trial.”

BP, Chevron, and Exxon either declined to comment or didn’t immediately respond to requests.

Phil Goldberg, who is representing the National Association of Manufacturers, an ally of the oil industry, said the Supreme Court’s decision was “disappointing but not unexpected.”

“At the end of the day, these cases are an unfortunate waste of judicial resources and we are confident that the courts will once again find that climate change requires a broad and innovative response from policymakers, not a liability ruling from state or federal courts,” he said in a statement.

Legal Path

Officials in Rhode Island, Baltimore, and a group of Colorado municipalities filed separate nuisance lawsuits against energy companies in 2018, following similar litigation from New York City and California cities and counties.

The two sides disagree about where the cases should be heard. Each lawsuit was filed in state court, raising claims under state common law. Energy companies pushed the cases to federal court and said the claims involved broader issues that must be decided at that level.

The industry could have an advantage before a judge that views the claims as federal in nature, thanks to Supreme Court precedent that blocks federal common law claims against greenhouse gas polluters.

But federal district courts reviewing the Rhode Island, Baltimore, and Colorado cases sent all three back to the state level. Industry lawyers challenged those decisions at federal appeals courts. Those appeals are pending, but the courts declined to halt state-level proceedings in the meantime.

That sparked the oil companies’ rush to the Supreme Court. They argued state cases shouldn’t be allowed to move forward before courts resolve legal questions about where climate nuisance claims belong.

The industry requests were BP Plc v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, U.S., No. 19A368, BP Plc v. Rhode Island, U.S., No. 19A391, and Suncor Energy (U.S.A.) Inc. v. Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs, U.S., No. 19A428.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com