Baltimore files suit against oil and gas companies for their role in spurring climate change

Baltimore’s top lawyer filed a lawsuit Friday against more than two dozen oil and gas companies that do business in the city, seeking to hold them financially responsible for their contributions to global climate change.

City Solicitor Andre M. Davis said the city will argue that the companies violated state laws, including a consumer protection statute, by concealing and disputing links between fossil fuel emissions and climate change.

“The companies knew of the harm decades ago,” the former federal judge said. “If it had been disclosed, the problem of climate change could have been mitigated significantly. That’s our claim.”

The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, follows more than a dozen similar complaints filed by governments around the country — some of which judges have quickly tossed.

Just Thursday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit New York City officials filed against oil companies, echoing a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that called climate change “an undertaking for the political branches” of government.

But Davis said he thinks state courts are an appropriate venue for the claim.

“The Founding Fathers would approve of this lawsuit,” he said. “They understood that states and localities have a role to play, and state court judges have an important role to play to ensure that justice is delivered to the people.”

The 26 defendants in Baltimore’s lawsuit include companies that transport fuels through the Port of Baltimore, including BP, Citgo and CONSOL Energy. Others market their fuels at gas stations around the city and state, including ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil and Hess Corp.

Many are among the largest fossil fuel companies in the world, including ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron.

The lawsuit argues that the companies knew that emissions from combustion of oil, gas and coal were building up in the atmosphere and trapping heat, and that the greenhouse effect would raise global temperatures and disrupt climate patterns. It cites revelations made in recent years that oil and gas companies were anticipating and preparing for the risks of climate change for decades, but did not share those concerns publicly.

The complaint also includes data showing that the globe has not recorded below-average temperatures since the 1970s, as compared to the global mean for 1910 through 2000, and that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been rising steadily since the 1950s.

It lists eight offenses by the companies, including public nuisance, failure to warn, and trespass, and says their actions violate Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act. That law prohibits misleading statements and “knowing concealment.”

It is seeking unspecified damages, legal penalties and court costs.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said she doesn’t see a conflict between the lawsuit and the city’s continued use of fossil fuels. City lawyers argue that Baltimore and the rest of the world could have weaned themselves from fossil fuels if not for the energy companies’ actions to fend off regulation and slow development of alternative technologies.

“That’s just reality,” Pugh said of fossil fuel dependence. “This lawsuit talks about the history.”

As a coastal city, Baltimore will have to face sea level rise and extreme storms, as well as more frequent heat waves, because of fossil fuel combustion, Pugh said. Climate threats are also making the city’s efforts to repair its aged water and sewer systems more difficult, she said.

Along with New York, governments from California to Colorado to Rhode Island have filed similar lawsuits over the past year.

Last month, before one federal judge dismissed New York’s lawsuit, another in California threw out a case filed by San Francisco and Oakland, saying it was a matter for Congress to handle.

Both rulings mirrored a 2011 Supreme Court ruling on a case in which eight states, New York City and three conservation groups sued four electricity companies and the Tennessee Valley Authority over climate change. The high court unanimously ruled that the federal Clean Air Act places emissions, and their impact on the environment, under the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But Davis said he was undaunted by those cases. He said federal courts in the 1950s similarly dismissed school desegregation cases that were later taken up in state courts.

“State judges in Delaware stood up, looked at the same Constitution that those federal judges had looked at, and found a constitutional violation,” Davis said. He said city lawyers believe local judges and juries “will look at the matter fresh and see we have legitimate claims for compensation.”

Davis and Pugh declined to quantify how many of the city’s 70 lawyers are working on the lawsuit, or how much time they are spending on it. Law firm Sher Edling LLP is giving the city free assistance on the case. The firm is working on several of the similar cases around the country, city officials said.

Baltimore’s lawsuit was quickly drawing national attention, from both supporters and critics.

Lindsay de la Torre, executive director of the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project, predicted that the lawsuit would be sent to federal court and dismissed. The organization, part of the National Association of Manufacturers, seeks to expose coordinated efforts to weaken the nation’s manufacturing industry.

“It’s time for politicians and trial lawyers to put an end to this frivolous litigation,” de la Torre said. “This abuse of our legal system does nothing to advance meaningful solutions, which manufacturers are focused on every day.”

Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, called Baltimore’s action “the next in a growing wave of climate liability lawsuits.”

“The catastrophic impacts of climate change predicted by companies like Exxon decades ago have arrived,” he said. “It’s only fitting then that the wave of lawsuits the industry have long feared and planned for have as well. The people of Baltimore deserve their day in court.”

The American Petroleum Institute declined to comment directly on the case but said the industry “is actively addressing the complex global challenge of climate change through robust investments in technology innovation, efficiency improvements, and cleaner fuels.”

sdance@baltsun.com

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