Justices pick up major climate liability case

By Jennifer Hijazi | 10/02/2020 01:44 PM EDT

The Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court. Francis Chung/E&E News

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear oil companies’ petition in a climate damages case brought by the city of Baltimore, jettisoning the issue of climate liability to the nation’s highest court.

The justices will weigh in on a technical jurisdictional question concerning federal officer involvement, which has cropped up as a main Big Oil strategy to kick climate disputes to federal court.

Supreme Court input could change the trajectory of a growing sea of lawsuits from cities, states and counties seeking to hold oil and gas companies financially liable for climate change damages through a combination of public nuisance, trespass, product liability and consumer protection laws.

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Lower courts have largely held that the debates belong in state court, after lengthy battles on the part of industry to remove the disputes to federal courts where they may be preempted by federal laws.

Industry arguments hinge on a technical question that governs whether claims involving federal officers always belong in federal courts. Though remand orders aren’t usually appealable, there is a loophole that allows challengers to appeal an entire order if they can prove there was federal officer involvement in their case.

Circuit courts have been split on the issue, giving companies an opening to petition the Supreme Court.

Baltimore acting Solicitor Dana Moore said in a statement today that justices have a very narrow question before them, which doesn’t have bearing on the questions of whether companies should be held accountable for climate harms.

"In public, defendants criticize our case as without merit. But in court, they do everything they can to delay proceedings and avoid a public trial on the facts," she said. "Their days of having it both ways are ending. Accountability is coming."

Chevron Corp., one of the companies listed on the case, told E&E News in a statement that it is pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision.

"These cases have sweeping implications for national energy policy, national security, foreign policy, and other uniquely federal interests," the company said. "They belong in federal court and we are hopeful the Supreme Court will agree that these issues require a closer look."

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