The oil industry asks the Supreme Court to block climate change lawsuits

Oil and gas companies are asking the Supreme Court to block dozens of high-powered lawsuits from California to Massachusetts seeking to hold the industry liable for billions of dollars in costs related to climate change.

They urge the justices to intervene now and rule that climate change is a global phenomenon and a matter for federal law, not one appropriate for state-by-state claims.

“The stakes couldn't be higher,” companies said an appeal that comes before the court on Thursday. “More than two dozen cases have been filed by various states and municipalities across the country seeking to impose untold damages on energy companies… and to gain control over the nation's energy policy… This court should put a stop to that to make. ”

The climate change lawsuits in question are based on the successful mass lawsuits brought by states and others against the tobacco industry over cigarettes and the pharmaceutical industry over opioids.

Cigarettes and opioids were sold legally, but the lawsuits alleged that industry officials conspired to deceive the public and conceal the true dangers of their highly profitable products.

Last September, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta sounded the same theme when they filed a lawsuit in San Francisco County Superior Court against five of the largest oil and gas companies — Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP — and the American Petroleum Institute for what they described as a “decades-long campaign of deception” that has caused climate-related damage in California.

“For more than fifty years, Big Oil has been lying to us – covering up the fact that they have long known how dangerous the fossil fuels they produce are to our planet.” Newsom said in announcing the lawsuit.

Bonta said the oil and gas companies “have privately known the truth for decades — that burning fossil fuels leads to climate change — but have fed us lies and untruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment… It's time that they pay to reduce the damage they caused.”

Under state law, plaintiffs can seek damages for broad, open-ended claims such as failure to warn of a hazard, false advertising or creating a public nuisance. All three claims are cited in the California lawsuit. Federal law, on the other hand, is generally limited to damages claims arising under a federal law.

The city and state officials suing the energy industry are determined to keep the climate change cases in state courts, while industry attorneys have fought hard — but so far without success — to bring them under federal jurisdiction.

Over the past four years, the justices have rejected procedural calls from the energy industry seeking to transfer these cases from state to federal courts.

This week, however, industry attorneys are asking the justices to decide the underlying question that affects them all: Does federal law and the Clean Air Act take precedence over states and their courts to punish the oil industry for the damage caused by greenhouse gases? ?

“This is the end game for the oil companies,” said Pat Parenteau, an environmental law expert at Vermont Law School. “They want to take this to the conservative Supreme Court. It is an attempt to rule out all these cases.”

Attorney Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. of Los Angeles, which represents Chevron, said the pending lawsuits are based on a “bizarre” legal theory rooted in false advertising claims, rather than underlying greenhouse gas emissions.

“It is extremely important that the Supreme Court now allows a review,” he said. “Global climate change requires a coordinated international policy response, not the unleashing of dozens of baseless local lawsuits that could wreak havoc on federal energy policy and drag on for years, even if ultimately doomed to failure.”

If the court votes to dismiss the cases of Sunoco vs. City of Honolulu and Shell vs. Honolulu will be a victory for the energy sector and a sign that the judges are likely to block the climate change lawsuits. The justices are expected to hear arguments in the fall.

However, if the appeals are denied, even more cities and states will be emboldened to file their own claims and seek billions in damages from the fossil fuel industry.

The case in question began four years ago when the city and county of Honolulu sued Sunoco and fourteen other major oil and gas producers for failing to warn and causing a nuisance.

The Hawaii Supreme Court declined to dismiss the case last year.

“Simply put, plaintiffs say the issue is whether defendants misled the public about the dangers of fossil fuels and their environmental impact. We agree… This lawsuit does not seek to regulate emissions and does not seek damages for interstate emissions,” the statement said. The state court said so unanimously. “To the contrary, Plaintiffs' complaint clearly seeks to challenge the promotion and sale of fossil fuel products without warning and fueled by a sophisticated disinformation campaign.”

The issue has divided red and blue states.

Early in the Sunoco case, California joined twelve other Democratic states in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to keep the case in Hawaii state court. They argued that the case was about protecting consumers from “deceptive conduct,” which is “an area traditionally regulated by the states.”

When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Alabama and 19 other Republican-led states filed a friend-of-the-court brief siding with the oil companies.

They argued that Hawaii and its courts do not have “the power to implement disastrous global energy policies through state tort law… and jeopardize access to affordable energy.”

In addition, Alabama filed an unusual motion in May asking the Supreme Court to grant an “original” claim raising the same issue. Original claims usually arise from state disputes over boundaries or river water. Legal experts doubted whether the court would uphold such a claim.

Honolulu attorneys urged the court to stay aside for now and wait, likely several years, for a final verdict in the lawsuit.

The judges could announce in mid-June whether they will hear the climate change cases.

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