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Climate Cases Against Energy Companies Proceeding in State Courts

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By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on October 24, 2019 1:20 PM

On October 22, the Supreme Court rejected stays of three lawsuits against oil companies who are trying to remove the cases to federal court. It is the latest in several lawsuits targeting energy companies over climate change concerns.

The three lawsuits are brought by Baltimore, Rhode Island, and Colorado, respectively, and all were filed in state courts. Defendants in the lawsuits, which include dozens of energy companies, argued that proceedings in state courts should be halted while federal circuit courts weigh appeals on whether these cases should be removed to federal court.

The First Circuit, Tenth Circuit and Fourth Circuit, along with two district courts, had all previously denied motions for stays.

Separately, New York has also filed a lawsuit for securities fraud against Exxon Mobil Corp relating to the costs associated with climate change. Trial in that lawsuit also began October 22.

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Energy companies are seeking federal jurisdiction in multiple lawsuits over climate change for a reason. They argue that the cases require uniform treatment and raise issues of federal law. They also believe they have a better chance of success in federal court.

Federal district court judges have previously dismissed two lawsuits brought by municipalities over climate change. U.S. District Judge John F. Keenan, in dismissing a suit brought by New York City, wrote that the Clean Air Act displaced the municipality's claims, and that Congress and the Executive branch was responsible for addressing climate change, not the judiciary. San Francisco and Oakland's claim was dismissed for similar reasons.

These followed a 2011 Supreme Court decision that the Clean Air Act displaced any federal common-law right to seek carbon footprint abatement. However, Justice Ginsberg, writing for the court, held that none of the parties had “addressed the availability of a claim under state nuisance law. We therefore leave the matter open for consideration on remand."

Contesting Liability, Not Science

The battle over venue is central to the strategy of every party involved in the lawsuits, which centers on whether state public nuisance laws can apply to harms caused by climate change. The parties agree that climate change is caused by human activity and poses financial and health risks.

Supreme Court May Yet Weigh In

The Supreme Court justices will have plenty of time to weigh in later should they choose to do so. The federal circuit courts have yet to decide any of the pending appeals. Should any allow the process to move forward in state court, the defendant oil companies will appeal.

Related Resources

Youth Climate Change Lawsuit Put on Hold (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court)

Colorado Sues Two Oil Companies for Causing Climate Change (FindLaw's U.S. Tenth Circuit)

NY Climate Change Case Dismissed, to Be Appealed (FindLaw's U.S. Second Circuit)