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Supreme Court Gives Big Oil a Victory in Baltimore Climate Change Lawsuit

— May 20, 2021

The justices said a lower court’s verdict was wrong, and that they will have to reconsider if Big Oil is right about the lawsuit belonging in federal rather than state court.

The Supreme Court handed a big win to oil and gas companies on Monday, following the justices’ decision to send Baltimore-led climate change lawsuit back to a lower court.

Baltimore, notes The Wall Street Journal, first filed the lawsuit in a Maryland state court in 2018.

In its complaint, the city claimed that energy companies had failed to adequately warn the general public of the dangers of their products—despite knowing for years that fossil fuel use has contributed to global warming. Baltimore further alleged that the city has suffered a variety of climate-change-related injuries, including higher sea levels and extreme weather.

While Baltimore was asking for compensatory damages—and was later backed by a number of other state- and city-level governments—the Supreme Court has since put the challenge on hold, pending further review.

According to The New York Times, the court’s ruling did not deal with the merits of the lawsuit. Instead, the bench addressed technical problems in the plaintiffs’ filing, most relating to “narrow issues concerning the rules for appealing lower-court decisions that send cases to state courts.”

Air pollution at sunrise; image by SD-Pictures, via Pixabay, CC0.
Air pollution at sunrise; image by SD-Pictures, via Pixabay, CC0.

Now, the justices are asking the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to do just that: reconsider the oil industry’s demand that the 4th Circuit review a lower-court decision that would allow the lawsuit to proceed in a state court.

The Wall Street Journal notes that the defendants in the case—including BP, Chevron, and Exxon Mobil—had expressly asked that the case be moved from Maryland state court to federal court, feeling that the federal judiciary has “fairer” procedural protections.

Furthermore, each energy company had contended that some of their oil-and-gas exploration efforts were commissioned by the federal government itself.

But in 2019, a federal trial judge denied the companies’ request; and then, in 2020, a federal appeals court said it lacked authority to change the lawsuit’s venue.

However, Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing on behalf of the court’s 7-1 majority, said the appeals court’s decision was incorrect and has ordered it to review its last ruling.

The Wall Street Journal observes that only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, while Justice Samuel Alito recused himself due to his investment holdings in the energy sector.

Although the Supreme Court’s order may benefit the defendant companies in the long-term, the New York Times’ legal experts opined that this ruling was not what the industry wanted.

Nevertheless, Baltimore has waited at least three years for the case to simply move to trial—and now, with the Supreme Court’s verdict, they may be waiting years more.


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