The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied requests from major oil companies to intervene in climate liability lawsuits aimed at holding fossil fuel producers accountable for climate damages and alleged disinformation campaigns. The court’s denial of the industry’s petitions means that the lawsuits can advance in state courts, where companies like ExxonMobil and Shell could be forced to face trial.
“Big Oil companies have been desperate to avoid trials in state courts, where they will be forced to defend their climate lies in front of juries, and today the Supreme Court declined to bail them out,” Richard Wiles, president of the advocacy organization Center for Climate Integrity, said in a statement.
More than two dozen communities across the United States have filed climate lawsuits against fossil fuel companies over the past six years. Until now, the litigation has been tied up in procedural wrangling over which courts — federal or state — should handle the cases.
Lawyers for the fossil fuel industry have tried to force the cases into federal courts, where they see an easier path to getting the lawsuits thrown out. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Clean Air Act displaces climate-related cases arising under federal common law, and a climate lawsuit filed in federal court by New York City in 2018 was tossed given that precedent. But federal courts that have considered the jurisdiction issue, including six different appeals courts, have unanimously decided that the cases should proceed in state courts. The industry had tried to overturn those decisions by taking the cases to the Supreme Court — but the highest federal court has now effectively shut the door by refusing to review the cases at this stage.
“This is excellent news for the plaintiffs in these climate cases,” Richard Lazarus, a law professor at Harvard University, told DeSmog. “There was a significant risk that the Court might grant review,” he said, adding that future Supreme Court petitions in other climate liability cases “are very unlikely to be granted in light of this ruling, which was in the face of a full court press from industry.”
The Supreme Court’s orders issued Monday apply to a handful of climate lawsuits, including cases brought by the city of Baltimore, the city and county of Honolulu, several coastal communities in California, and the state of Rhode Island, as well as the city and county of Boulder and the county of San Miguel in Colorado.
In the Colorado communities’ case, the Supreme Court had asked the U.S. Department of Justice to weigh in. Last month the Solicitor General filed a brief siding with the communities’ position that the litigation belongs in state court and urging the high court to decline review. The Justices ultimately declined review, though the court’s order noted that Justice Kavanaugh “would grant the petition” in this case. Justice Alito, who owns stock in several oil companies, including ConocoPhillips and Phillips66, recused himself from consideration of the petitions in all of the climate cases.
“Every court that has reviewed this case has come to the same conclusion–that it should be heard in a local court, by a local jury. The Supreme Court’s decision today confirms that,” EarthRights General Counsel Marco Simons said in a statement. EarthRights is helping represent the Colorado communities in court against ExxonMobil and Suncor in their climate liability case that was initially filed in 2018.
Suncor did not immediately respond to a request for comment. ExxonMobil spokesperson Todd Spitler said the company “will continue to fight these suits, which are a waste of time and resources and do nothing to address climate change.”
“We are confident the pending climate lawsuits in the U.S. will ultimately be dismissed,” Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, and lead counsel for Chevron in the climate liability lawsuits, said in an emailed statement. “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. 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,” he added.
“The Shell Group’s position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades. We agree that action is needed now on climate change, and we fully support the need for society to transition to a lower-carbon future. We continue to reduce our emissions and help customers reduce theirs as we supply vital energy the world needs today,” a Shell spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Addressing climate change requires a collaborative, society-wide approach. We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government and action from all sectors is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress.”
BP declined to comment.
Contrary to the industry’s characterization of the lawsuits, climate accountability advocates say the cases are about holding the industry liable for lying to the public about the climate harms of its products.
“ExxonMobil, Suncor, Chevron, Shell and other fossil fuel companies have known for decades that heat-trapping emissions from their operations and the use of their products drive climate change and its impacts, but they have continued to deceive the public and obstruct meaningful action,” said Delta Merner, lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The decision sends a powerful message to fossil fuel companies: Evading responsibility will not be tolerated.”
With the Supreme Court’s denial of the industry’s petitions, climate liability cases brought by Boulder, Baltimore, Honolulu, and other communities are now cleared to move forward in state courts where the proceedings will focus more on the substantive claims of alleged disinformation and deception.
“This changes the calculus significantly,” Karen Sokol, professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, told DeSmog. Until now, the allegations of disinformation have not been litigated, she said, but that is about to change.
“Now things will become more interesting for the general public in terms of just thinking of how we got here in this stage in the climate crisis and the industry’s contributions to really polluting the information landscape,” Sokol said. “It’s important just as a matter of democratic governance to understand this sort of conduct.”