Baltimore’s legal effort to hold dozens of oil and gas companies responsible for the consequences of global warming reached the U.S. Supreme Court, with the energy giants asking the nation’s highest court Wednesday to halt all proceedings in the case pending an appeal they filed over the proper jurisdiction for the claims.
While the city filed the case in state court, and a U.S. District Court judge has ruled in favor of keeping it there, the companies believe it should be heard instead in federal court — where similar cases have been tossed out. So the companies appealed the district court’s ruling to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.
That court is still considering the appeal, but ruled Tuesday against issuing a stay in the case in the lower courts. That would have allowed the city to start seeking evidence from the companies in state court, including documents that might reveal to what extent they were aware of the threat of global warming years ago.
To halt that from happening, the companies sought an emergency stay Wednesday from the Supreme Court, arguing in a filing to Chief Justice John G. Roberts that the city’s lawsuit must not be allowed to continue in state court because it “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.”
A dozen other similar lawsuits are now pending in five federal appellate courts, and such cases “should not be resolved piecemeal in state court under state law," the companies wrote to Roberts — especially considering they “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.”
If the 4th Circuit affirms the district court’s decision to remand the case to state court, the companies also asked that the Supreme Court stay that order and accept a petition to consider the matter of jurisdiction directly.
Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis, who brought the claim against the companies in Baltimore Circuit Court, said their effort to remove the case to federal court is based in fear.
“They’re desperate to avoid the reckoning that they know is in the offing,” said Davis, a former federal judge. “We’re in state court before everyday people as jurors. Scary for them.”
The 26 companies targeted by the lawsuit do business in the city. Some, including BP, Citgo and CONSOL Energy, transport fuels through the port of Baltimore. Others, including ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil and Hess Corp., have marketed their fuels at gas stations around the city and state.
Davis said this summer that the companies violated state laws by concealing and disputing links between fossil fuel emissions and global warming, which threatens coastal cities such as Baltimore.
“The companies knew of the harm decades ago,” Davis said at the time. “If it had been disclosed, the problem of climate change could have been mitigated significantly. That’s our claim.”
The Supreme Court did not respond to the companies’ request Wednesday. But U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander granted a separate request from the companies to extend by an additional week a previous stay she’d placed on her order to leave the case in state court, thereby giving the Supreme Court more time to respond.
Hollander wrote that the city “may move to rescind [her] order as improvidently granted" if the nation’s highest court has not acted by Monday. The companies said they hoped the Supreme Court would move swiftly.
Attorneys for the fuel companies did not respond to requests for comment. But Sean Comey, a spokesman for Chevron, said in a statement that the case was unfounded, raised "significant federal issues” and is similar to others that have been dismissed elsewhere in federal district courts.
“These special interest lawsuits targeting a few responsible, investor-owned energy companies who deliver affordable, reliable and ever cleaner energy will do nothing to address climate change.,” Comey said. "Chevron is working to find real solutions to climate change.
Advocates for the environment praised the decision by the 4th Circuit to allow the case to proceed in the lower courts.
The Union of Concerned Scientists said that decision, if not undone by the Supreme Court, would mean Baltimore could request “a treasure trove of documents” from the companies that could “shed significant light on how the companies — with knowledge of their top executives — intentionally deceived the public about the harm their products caused.”