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Supreme Court deals blow to oil companies by turning away climate cases

The decision means lawsuits filed by municipalities seeking to hold companies liable for harms caused by carbon emissions can move forward in state courts.
The Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
The Supreme Court declined to take up several disputes between energy companies and local governments over the impact of climate change.Nathan Howard / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday allowed lawsuits brought by municipalities seeking to hold energy companies accountable for climate change to move forward in a loss for business interests.

The court turned away oil company appeals in five cases involving claims brought by cities and municipalities in Colorado, Maryland, California, Hawaii and Rhode Island as part of efforts to hold businesses accountable for the effects of climate change.

The relatively narrow legal issue is whether the lawsuits should be heard in state court instead of federal court. Litigants care because of the widely held view that plaintiffs have better chances of winning damage awards in state courts.

"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," said Richard Wiles, the president of the Center for Climate Integrity, an environmental group.

Business groups expressed disappointment, with Phil Goldberg, a lawyer with the National Association of Manufacturers' legal arm, saying climate issues should be dealt with at the national or international levels.

"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," he said.

The Biden administration urged the court not to hear the case, and in a change to the legal position taken by the Trump administration, it said the lawsuit and others like it should be heard in state courts.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted in the brief order that he would have taken up one of the cases. Justice Samuel Alito did not participate, most likely because he owns stock in oil companies.

In all five cases, BP, Chevron, Shell and other companies had lost in lower courts.

The lawsuits say the municipalities have been harmed by the effects of climate change caused by carbon emissions that the oil companies are heavily responsible for.

In an earlier case, the Supreme Court in 2021 ruled in favor of oil companies on a procedural issue in a similar lawsuit brought by the city of Baltimore.

On a separate legal issue, the court in a major ruling last year limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to address climate change under a provision of the Clean Air Act.