US Supreme Court to Decide Fate Of Baltimore v. Big Oil Suit

By: Dharna Noor | October 4, 2019

Baltimore just had it’s hottest October day ever. City officials are trying to hold big energy companies accountable for fueling the climate crisis, but the companies are pushing back.

Last year, Baltimore sued 26 major oil and gas companies, alleging that they knowingly contributed to climate change. On Tuesday, the 26 companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and BP, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to stop the suit from proceeding in state court, pending an appeal to the U.S. Fourth District Court. 

City officials filed the suit in August 2018. “The aim here is to seek compensation to the city from the consequences of climate change,” City Solicitor Andre Davis, who brought the case, told the Real News last year. “The fossil fuel companies have known for decades of the catastrophic consequences of their market approach, their business model, and we don’t believe it’s fair or equitable for the taxpayers of Baltimore City to incur and bear all the costs that will be consequences of their business model.”

Davis filed the suit in state court, but the companies argue that it should be heard at the federal level.

“It is difficult to imagine claims that more clearly implicate substantial questions of federal law and require uniform disposition than the claims at issue here, which seek to transform the nation’s energy, environmental, national security, and foreign policies by punishing energy companies for lawfully supplying necessary oil and gas resources,” says the companies appeal to the Supreme Court. “This Court has long held that lawsuits like this one targeting interstate pollution and related issues necessarily implicate uniquely federal interests and should be resolved under federal common law, not state law.”

In June, Obama-appointed U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander rejected the companies’ argument, sending the case back to state court. But the energy giants appealed that decision to the ruling to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, where it’s still being considered. 

On Tuesday, the Fourth Circuit ruled against issuing a stay in the case in the lower courts. That decision would have allowed city officials to begin the discovery process, which would compel the companies to turn over evidence supporting the state case, including documents showing their knowledge of the catastrophic climate impacts of burning fossil fuels.

“With this ruling, Baltimore should receive material that is likely to shed significant light on how the companies—with knowledge of their top executives—intentionally deceived the public about the harm their products caused,” the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a statement on Tuesday. “Journalists and nonprofit organizations already have turned up documents showing that decades ago ExxonMobil, Shell and others knew that fossil fuel emissions were causing climate change. Instead of acknowledging the problem, fossil fuel companies spent millions of dollars to confuse the public about global warming’s causes and countless hours lobbying against state and federal policies that sought to limit emissions.”

But to environmental advocates dismay, the companies fought back: They filed for an emergency stay from Supreme Court and a stay on the ruling to move the case to the state level, arguing that the city’s allegations must be heard in a federal forum, especially because several other similar cases are pending in federal appellate courts. 

“This suit—like a dozen other related suits that have been filed around the country and removed to federal court, and which are now pending in various postures in five of the courts of appeals—raises claims that necessarily arise under federal common law, implicate oil and gas production activities performed at the direction of federal officers and on federal lands, and require resolution in a federal forum,” says the oil companies’ application to Chief Justice John G. Roberts. The Supreme Court has yet to respond to the companies’ appeal. 

Judge Hollander accepted another request from the companies—she extended the stay she placed on her order to keep the lawsuit in state court, which gives the Supreme Court more time to respond. 

Federal courts have dismissed similar cases against oil and gas companies for their role in climate destruction. 

Baltimore city officials are hoping the Chief Justice will maintain that the case should be considered in state court. “At this point, we are simply waiting for the Chief Justice to act on the request made by the defendants to stay the order returning the case to state court,” said City Solicitor Andre Davis in an email. “Until he acts of the request, we are at a standstill at least until Monday. We hope he denies the request and soon.”

Related Bios

Dharna Noor

Dharna Noor is senior correspondent and editor of the Real News Network’s Climate Crisis Bureau. Her work has appeared in Jacobin, Truthout, Alternet, and other publications. She also works with Tubman House’s community farm in West Baltimore and sings with the Canticle Singers of Baltimore.