A panel of federal judges on Tuesday ruled that California climate lawsuits aiming to force major fossil fuel companies to pay for their role in causing the environmental crisis must be heard in state courts rather than more industry-friendly federal venues, a decision that was celebrated as a major blow to Big Oil's efforts to evade accountability.
"The oil companies' strategy is to keep the light from shining on their own behavior. This gets closer to allowing plaintiffs to shine that light."
—Ann Carlson, UCLA
In a unanimous 3-0 ruling, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments from fossil fuel company lawyers that the lawsuits by five California cities and three counties should be heard in federal rather than state court. In a separate ruling Tuesday, the panel unanimously overturned a 2018 district court decision that tossed out climate lawsuits brought by San Francisco and Oakland.
The latter ruling sends the San Francisco and Oakland suits back to the lower court for reconsideration.
The lawsuits by California municipalities seek to compel major oil companies like Chevron, BP, and Exxon Mobil to pay tens of billions of dollars to help cities and counties combat the devastating effects of the climate crisis.
"These lawsuits were filed to protect our residents, workers, and businesses from the harms of climate change knowingly imposed on our communities by the fossil fuel companies," San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said in a joint statement. "Today's ruling from a unanimous Court of Appeals panel puts us one step closer to that goal."
Huge news: federal appeals court rules that California climate cases against fossil fuel producers should proceed in state court, where they have a much better chance of winning.
Accountability is coming for Big Fossil. https://t.co/CuiivU4Oml
— Ben Franta (@BenFranta) May 26, 2020
The Associated Press reported that the rulings "are expected to meet continued challenges that could include a review by a larger Ninth Circuit panel and, eventually, review by the U.S. Supreme Court."
While the lawsuits have a long way to go before reaching a jury, UCLA environmental law professor Ann Carlson told AP that the rulings move plaintiffs closer to discovering what top fossil fuel executives knew and when they knew it and what oil companies did to fund a campaign to dissuade the American public that climate change was happening."
"The oil companies' strategy is to keep the light from shining on their own behavior," said Carlson. "This gets closer to allowing plaintiffs to shine that light."
Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, said in a statement that Tuesday's rulings are "a tremendous victory in the fight to hold Big Oil accountable for lying about climate change and leaving communities to pay for the damage."
"The last thing Big Oil wants is a trial where the truth about their decades of lying about climate change would be laid bare," said Wiles. "These decisions get these communities one step closer to that day.”