The US Supreme Court has declined to hear appeals by major oil companies that would move lawsuits against them into federal courts.
The supreme court rejected five appeals from Exxon Mobil, Suncor Energy and Chevron, which determined that the lawsuits belonged in state courts. The rulings in these cases will help determine whether future cases will be waged in federal courts or at the state level. When compared with federal courts, state courts are often seen as more favourable to plaintiffs in damage cases, potentially increasing the liability of the companies.
The relevant lawsuits were filed by the state of Rhode Island and municipalities or counties in Maryland, Colorado, California and Hawaii accused the companies of worsening climate change.
Richard Lazarus, a law professor at Harvard University, told climate journalism platform DeSmog that it seems “very unlikely” that the Supreme Court will grant other climate liability cases in light of this decision “which was in the face of a full court press from industry”.
The move has been celebrated by environmentalists who claim that the move could be used to hold oil and gas companies accountable for climate change.
Richard Wiles, president of the Centre for Climate Integrity, said in a statement: “Big Oil companies have been desperate to avoid trials in state courts, where they will be forced to defend their climate lies in front of juries, and today the Supreme Court declined to bail them out.”
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The decision has been met with disappointment from some legal groups. Phil Goldberg, a lawyer with the National Association of Manufacturers’ legal arm, told NBCthat the cases should be dealt with on a national or international level.
He said: “The challenge of our time is developing technologies and public policies so that the world can produce and use energy in ways that are affordable for people and sustainable for the planet. It should not be figuring out how to creatively plead lawsuits that seek to monetize climate change and provide no solutions”.
Setting a legal precedent in US climate justice
Monday’s decision builds on a 2021 decision when justices found that a federal court had not correctly analysed whether a lawsuit should be heard in federal or state court. This lawsuit was filed by the city of Baltimore against companies including BP, Chevron and Exxon.
The Supreme Court heard the case, ruling in favour of energy companies and exempting them from paying monetary damages.
Energy companies have argued that due to the nature of greenhouse gases being borderless, the issue is inherently federal. Theodore Boutrous, an attorney for Chevron, told Reuters that the issue is of “national and global magnitude” and should not be treated as “a disjointed patchwork”.
In March, President Biden encouraged justices not to take up an appeal by Exxon and Suncor, claiming that the cases belong in a state court as no federal questions had been raised. This reversed the position taken by the previous Trump administration.