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Annapolis

Climate change lawsuits filed by Annapolis and Anne Arundel County can proceed in Maryland courts, judge says

A flooded Annapolis City Dock and Alex Haley statue three hours after high tide Oct. 29, 2021.

Did global oil companies know that fossil fuel use causes climate change while still trying to convince consumers otherwise? Attorneys representing Annapolis, Anne Arundel County and dozens of other states and municipalities believe they did, and think corporations should be on the hook to pay for mitigating the harms of warming oceans, rising temperatures and other environmental crises.

The joint legal action by Annapolis and Anne Arundel, filed last year, took a major step forward recently when a judge ruled their cases should be tried in state court rather than before a federal bench.

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The defendants — 25 companies connected to the oil and gas industry as well as the American Petroleum Institute, a powerful trade organization — have argued that these cases “raise national issues that should not be litigated in myriad of state courts,” according to API’s general counsel. But U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Gallagher disagreed. In her order issued Sept. 29, Gallagher said she would follow similar case precedent and remand the case back to the Maryland judiciary.

“Since 2017, over twenty states and local governments across the country have brought comparable state common law claims against fossil fuel industry actors,” the judge wrote. She noted that Baltimore’s lawsuit, filed in 2018 by the same California law firm, remains in state court, as do four out of five similar cases reviewed on appeal.

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Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley praised Gallagher’s ruling, while API general counsel Ryan Meyers called this lawsuit and others like it a “meritless” waste of taxpayer resources. “We’re considering our next steps in light of the court’s ruling,” he said in a statement.

In their complaint against the oil companies on behalf of Annapolis, Sher Edling attorneys claim Maryland’s capital has the “greatest recorded increase in average annual nuisance flooding events of any city in the nation—nearly tenfold.” The complaint goes on to allege that effects of climate change have resulted in lost revenue and property damage to local businesses, and in turn, caused the city to spend financial resources on pumps, sea walls and other infrastructure to combat sea-level rise.

Although it’s unclear how some cities, counties and states filing similar lawsuits would use the money if damages are awarded, Annapolis has a tangible need to prevent flooding, and is actively seeking funds for a massive City Dock redevelopment project.

“We appreciate Judge Gallagher’s thorough and clear opinion, which joins the majority of federal district and circuit courts around the country to send our case back to state court, where it belongs,” Buckley said in a statement. “Annapolis taxpayers, businesses, and residents should not have to pay for the destructive effects of climate change that these defendants knew would impact our community, and communities like ours across the country. We look forward to our day in court to hold them accountable.”

The wave of state and municipal lawsuits against oil and gas companies started in California in 2017, the same year then-U.S. President Donald Trump said he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, a 2015 deal signed by nearly 200 countries. Baltimore City followed a year later, and the case has been tied up in a battle over jurisdiction ever since. A narrow technicality went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court last year. The nine justices sent the matter back to the 4th Circuit Court, where in April judges ruled none of the defendants’ eight arguments for trying the case federal court had merit.

The Supreme Court has granted the defendants an extension to file another petition. That petition is “forthcoming,” according to Gallagher’s ruling.

“These oil and gas companies are holding out hope that the Supreme Court is going to come galloping to the rescue,” said William Buzbee, a climate law scholar at Georgetown University. The delay tactics also keep money in shareholders’ pockets, he said. “Part of the game for the defendants is trying to delay things.”

Buzbee directs Georgetown Law’s Environmental Law & Policy Program. In addition to seeking monetary damages, Buzbee said the states, cities and counties filing these lawsuits hope that the discovery process could yield a few bombshells, admissions that could sway the court of public opinion as well as the judicial branch of government. For example, if internal emails or studies reveal that companies named in the suit — including affiliates of BP, Chevron, and Shell — knew that fossil fuel use was responsible for climate change, yet they continued pushing the idea that trends like global warming are a natural process, not a human-made crisis.

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“A powerful way to combat those kind of claims is if the people who led these campaigns were aware that the opposite was true,” Buzbee said.

He analogized the arguments that municipalities are lodging against oil companies to lawsuits filed against tobacco companies. In those suits, states successfully argued that the likes of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Philip Morris International continued to advertise smoking as a cool way to relax long after the companies knew cigarettes were habit-forming and harmful.

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Following that precedent, the suits against oil and gas companies are “legitimate state consumer protection law claims,” Buzbee said.

Although Annapolis and Anne Arundel County filed their lawsuits separately last year, both have worked out a contingency payment plan with Sher Edling, and say the company’s lawyers will be paid only if the suits are successful.

Gallagher issued one ruling for both the Annapolis and Anne Arundel cases. In addition to remanding the matter to state court, she granted the defendants only a 30-day stay before the cases can proceed.

County Executive Steuart Pittman joined Buckley on Friday in praising the judge’s order. “We will hold these fossil fuel companies accountable for decades of deception about their products and climate change,” he said in a statement. “We expect defendants will do everything they can to avoid going to trial, but they cannot run and hide forever.”

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Meyers, however, accused Annapolis and the county of creating a “distraction” that could prevent companies from “providing affordable, reliable and cleaner energy.”

While he did not deny negative effects of climate change, he called attempts to litigate who-knew-what about the phenomenon “meritless.”

“Ultimately, climate policy is an issue for Congress to debate, not the court system,” Meyers said.


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