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BREAKING: DOJ throws support behind communities suing Big Oil
Finally, at long last, the Biden administration fulfilled a campaign promise to “strategically support” climate lawsuits against polluters.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
Huge news for climate accountability: After two years of silence, the Department of Justice is finally supporting communities seeking to put Big Oil companies on trial for their climate deception and the damages they have caused.
The long-awaited move ends the department’s Trump-era position backing oil companies in climate accountability cases and fulfills a campaign pledge that President Biden made to “strategically support” climate lawsuits against polluters. (Note: If this feels like whiplash after the Biden administration this week approved new oil drilling in Alaska, well, we’re right there with you.)
In a U.S. Supreme Court brief filed today, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar urged the justices to reject an industry request to review lower court rulings that would allow lawsuits from three Colorado communities to proceed to trial in state court, where they were filed.
Big Oil has spent years trying to prevent the Colorado and other climate accountability cases from moving toward trial, but judges across the country and appointed by presidents across the political spectrum have unanimously denied those efforts. The oil giants in turn begged the Supreme Court to let them off the hook, often pointing to the DOJ’s Trump-era position. But now, the Justice Department says those lower court rulings were right.
“After the change in Administration and in light of those intervening developments, the United States has reexamined its position and has concluded that state-law claims like those pleaded here should not be recharacterized as claims arising under federal common law,” today’s DOJ brief reads.
The DOJ’s guidance and the Supreme Court’s decision will matter for dozens of cases across the country, but today’s brief was specifically filed in a dispute concerning three Colorado communities: Boulder and San Miguel counties, and the City of Boulder, are suing ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy to make the companies help pay for the damages caused by climate change. Since then, more than a thousand homes in Boulder County burned to the ground in the most damaging wildfire in Colorado state history.
“As our communities suffer, Exxon and Suncor continue to take in record profits while taxpayers shoulder the burden created by Big Oil,” said Boulder County Commissioner Ashley Stolzmann in a press statement.
While the Supreme Court justices’ request finally spurred the DOJ’s action, they weren’t the first to urge Attorney General Merrick Garland to pick a side: U.S. Senators, state attorneys general, and even lawmakers from Biden’s home state spent the last two years calling on the administration to take a stand. Garland was even pressed about the issue at a Senate hearing earlier this month:
Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, said today’s development was the latest defeat for Big Oil companies hoping to escape accountability for their role in the climate crisis.
“Communities in Colorado and across the U.S. have waited long enough for justice,” Wiles said. “It’s past time that Big Oil companies face the evidence of their climate lies and answer to juries in state court.”