Maryland’s state courts soon will take center stage in a series of climate-related lawsuits that could make the energy products that power our daily lives a lot more expensive. Baltimore City, Annapolis and Anne Arundel County have joined an effort by more than 20 communities around the country to seek compensation from energy producers that make and sell products that contribute to climate change. The U.S. Supreme Court’s April decision not to hear such jurisdictional questions sent the lawsuits to state courts in Maryland and elsewhere.
The importance of these cases should be obvious. Climate change is a global issue with countless causes and contributors. Societies ranging from China and India to the United States have engaged in activities from farming to transportation that are changing the climate. And we all continue to engage despite our knowledge of the climate impact.
Given the shared nature of this reality, Maryland residents should be confident that state court judges will dismiss these baseless lawsuits.
As noted by the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., the challenge for state and local officials is not figuring out whom to sue for climate change but how to work with manufacturers, businesses, farmers and other entities to sustain our way of life without harming the climate. Fortunately, we are making measurable progress as new technologies and important public policies are being developed in Maryland and elsewhere to advance this effort.
Unfortunately, rather than focusing on effective solutions, local officials in Baltimore City, Annapolis and Anne Arundel County have filed these meritless lawsuits to cash in on an obvious money grab. They want energy companies to be solely responsible for climate mitigation costs, even though that would increase energy costs for all of us. They believe blaming energy companies is good politics.
Getting these lawsuits into state courts to advance this agenda was a politically motivated decision. Annapolis City Attorney Mike Lyles admitted as much in 2021 when he said, “we think the Maryland courts will get us there.” Our state judges, though, must go only where the law takes them, and that’s to dismiss these lawsuits.
The lawsuits are especially bad policy for Maryland. As lawyers for similar cases have said, higher energy prices will be a direct result of these lawsuits, and Maryland will be affected more than most states because, according to the Energy Information Administration, we rely on natural gas for consumption more than any other fuel source.
Fortunately, the judicial response appears to have cut through the political rhetoric. Federal courts have already dismissed the case filed by New York City that is identical to the Maryland lawsuits. As the U.S. Court of Appeals said in its ruling, “the question before us is whether municipalities may utilize state tort law to hold multinational oil companies liable for the damages caused by global greenhouse gas emissions. Given the nature of the harm and the existence of a complex web of federal and international environmental law regulating such emissions, we hold that the answer is ‘no.’”
Last year, Baltimore County decided against filing a lawsuit when the County Council was approached to join the money grab. Council members from both parties saw through the fog of these lawsuits. As Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk said, “I’m not very inclined to jump on some of these ambulance-chasing types of legal strategies out there nationwide that I think often are more about feeding law firms as opposed to really doing some good work.”
And Ted Garrish, an Annapolis resident who served as a U.S. Energy Department General Counsel, explained “considerable greenhouse gas emissions from China and India [are] just as responsible for the local impacts we witness in Annapolis as domestic causes.” He added that “it defies logic for American energy companies to be forced to foot the bill for emissions from outside U.S. borders.”
A better way to address global climate change is to focus on innovation and pragmatic policy.
It is time to put an end to climate litigation and focus on realistic efforts that will produce results in the fight against climate change.
Christopher B. Summers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Public Policy Institute.