In a major win for advocates of making fossil fuel giants pay for devastating climate impacts of their products, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday that Rhode Island's historic lawsuit against oil and gas companies should proceed in state court, where it was originally filed in July 2018.
While there has been a "fast-growing wave of climate lawsuits" filed this fall, Rhode Island was the first state in the country to sue dirty energy giants—including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell—seeking to hold them accountable "for knowingly contributing to climate change, and causing catastrophic consequences to Rhode Island, our economy, our communities, our residents, our ecosystems."
Rhode Island Democratic Attorney General Peter Neronha, who took over the suit from his predecessor, explained after a district court issued a similar ruling last year that "the state's lawsuit contains no federal question or cause of action, rather, contains only state law causes of action regarding damage to Rhode Island's resources that are better suited to resolution in the state courts." He welcomed the new ruling on Twitter:
A federal court has ruled that RI’s lawsuit to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change damage in RI belongs in state court, where it was originally filed. Ready to move past defendants’ procedural delays & litigate the merits of our case.
To sum things up pic.twitter.com/UUt4lQIZ3d
— Peter Neronha (@AGNeronha) October 29, 2020
With its ruling on the Ocean State's case Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit "now joins the 4th, 9th, and 10th circuits in ruling that climate damages lawsuits brought against Big Oil under state law belong in state court," the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) noted in a statement.
"Big Oil has failed once again to move a climate damages case out of state court, where the companies are terrified of being held accountable for their deception," declared CCI executive director Richard Wiles. "These fossil fuel companies knowingly caused the climate crisis that is engulfing the nation, and the people of Rhode Island deserve their day in court to hold the industry accountable."
"This ruling is more evidence of the momentum behind climate accountability cases," added Wiles, "as Big Oil now faces lawsuits for lying about climate change from more than 20 communities across the nation."
... and the inherent state law nature of the suit: "RI is alleging the oil companies produced and sold oil and gas products in RI that were damaging the environment and engaged in a misinformation campaign about the harmful effects of their products on the earth's climate". 2/2 pic.twitter.com/MwNq8hY6gY
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— Sam Varvastian (@SamVarvastian) October 29, 2020
Since 2017, two dozen local or state governments—including Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Minnesota—have filed similar suits, according to CCI. Whether those cases belong in state or federal court is a key fight between governments filing the lawsuits and the energy companies on the defense.
The Climate Docket reported last week on the U.S. Supreme Court agreeing to weigh in on the city of Baltimore's case against fossil fuel companies, to "decide if appellate courts can review certain lower court rulings related to whether a case will be heard in federal or state court." As the report explained:
Nearly all of the dozens of cases filed against the industry alleging it should be held accountable for its role in climate change are wrestling with this issue of jurisdiction. The companies are fighting fiercely to have them heard in federal courts, which have traditionally punted climate-related cases to the legislative and executive branches of government. The municipalities want them heard in state courts, where they were filed alleging violations of state laws and where they believe they are more likely to win.
While the high court will not address the merits of Baltimore's case—whether the fossil fuel companies should pay for the damages caused by climate change, caused overwhelmingly by the burning of their products—the outcome of their jurisdiction decision could have major implications for nearly all of the climate change-related cases filed since 2017.
"Any of the cases that are currently on appeal, or that there's no recent appellate decision on, could potentially be affected by this," said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA Law Environmental Law Clinic.
However, citing this year's wave of suits, Hecht added, "the fact that there have been new recent cases filed means to me that people are just moving ahead with these cases despite the procedural hurdles—these hurdles have been there since the beginning."