Supreme Court clears the way for climate accountability
SCOTUS has rejected Big Oil’s pleas, allowing climate liability lawsuits to advance toward trial in state courts.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Tremendous news in the fight for climate accountability: the U.S. Supreme Court just paved the way for state and local governments to put Big Oil companies on trial for their climate lies.
Fossil fuel companies had asked the high court to review a growing number of lower court rulings that allow climate fraud and damages lawsuits to continue making their way toward trial in state court, where they were originally filed. Today the justices turned Big Oil down.
Lower courts have unanimously ruled against Big Oil’s attempts to escape these lawsuits in state court. The Supreme Court’s decision means that climate accountability lawsuits brought by state and local governments across the country, many of which have been stuck in procedural limbo, can finally continue advancing toward trial without delay. Two cases sent back to state court, from Honolulu and Massachusetts, are already in pretrial discovery — and many others are close behind.
Fossil fuel defendants urged the justices to review circuit court rulings in Colorado, Rhode Island, Maryland, Hawai'i, and California, where judges unanimously agreed the cases should move forward in state court. In March, the U.S. Justice Department joined the growing judicial chorus and urged the Supreme Court to reject Big Oil’s arguments as well.
Now it’s time for communities across the U.S. to prepare to put Big Oil on trial.
“These companies need to pay their fair share to deal with the climate chaos they’ve created and take responsibility for the climate impacts,” said Commissioner Ashley Stolzmann of Boulder County, Colorado, whose lawsuit Exxon urged the Supreme Court to review. “Local governments cannot shoulder the price tag of climate change alone.”
Big Oil’s inability to get SCOTUS to hear its case wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of the industry or its friends. For months, Big Oil’s backers have been blasting out opinion pieces (many placed in right-wing media outlets) begging the Supreme Court justices to bail the industry out of state court. These weren’t coming from objective parties who just happen to be interested in climate liability law: most, if not all, had direct ties to fossil fuel companies themselves, including defendants in these cases. Former U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, for example, urged the court to grant review in a Bloomberg Law opinion piece without mentioning that she was formerly the general counsel for Royal Dutch Shell Unconventional Oil and “a member of Shell’s global legal leadership team.”
Even some on the Supreme Court itself have close ties to the industry. Justice Samuel Alito owns individual stock in ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66, both of whom are defendants in several of the cases. He recused himself from today’s decision — but Exxon had floated a devious way for him to get around this clear conflict of interest.
Amy Coney Barrett — whose father was a longtime lawyer for Shell and a member of the American Petroleum Institute — did not recuse herself, however. When Barrett was a lower court judge, she didn’t participate in cases involving Shell, but since becoming a justice on the Supreme Court — which doesn’t have enforcement levers regarding recusals — she hasn’t done so (Barrett also sat in on a hearing and joined a ruling about a procedural dispute in Baltimore’s case against Shell and other oil companies in 2021).
Nevertheless, Big Oil’s ploys to evade accountability at this stage just came up short.
“After decades of climate change deception by the fossil fuel defendants, and now nearly half a decade of delay tactics in our lawsuit to hold them accountable for it, our residents, workers, businesses and taxpayers are ready for their day in court,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha in a statement. “Now that the Supreme Court has affirmed the decisions of dozens of federal judges across the country, it is time to prepare for trial.”
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ICYMI, more good news
On Friday, a federal court in California dismissed a $100 million dollar SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suit brought against Greenpeace by Canadian logging company Resolute Forest Products. The logging company filed the lawsuit seven years ago after Greenpeace called out its dangerous operations. In a collaboration with DeSmog last year, we covered this dangerous tactic used by corporations to silence its critics — and how a federal anti-SLAPP bill could stop them.
“For seven years, Resolute Forest Products has sought to silence Greenpeace USA, simply because we exercised our First Amendment right to expose their destructive business practices,” said Ebony Twilley Martin, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, in a statement. “We are beyond grateful the Court defended the right to call out corporations that prioritize profit over people. Because the truth is, this fight was never just about Greenpeace: it was an attempt to silence all those who speak truth to power.”
Thank you everyone who worked for this. You give me some hope. But there is much more work to be done to protect our resources from multinational corporations and their financiers. Watch out for greenwashing, while investors take land from poor people and produce industries that compromise climate stability.