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Breakthrough in US Climate Lawsuits Against Big Oil

Updated: May 8, 2023

If you think that Big Oil deserves its day of reckoning, there's very good news as the cities bringing climate litigation against the oil majors are rejoicing after the US supreme court rebuffed the oil companies' appeal to move cases to federal courts. After 6 years of delaying tactics by the likes of Exxon and Chevron, everything can now move forward - in state courts, which are seen as more favorable to plaintiffs.


Oil well in Texas

The decision, climate experts and advocates said, felt “like a dam breaking” after years of legal delays to the growing wave of climate lawsuits facing major oil companies. Without weighing in on the merits of the cases, the supreme court has rebuffed an appeal by major oil companies that want to face the litigation in federal courts, rather than in state courts, which are seen as more favorable to plaintiffs.


ExxonMobil Corp, Suncor Energy Inc and Chevron Corp had asked for the change of venue in lawsuits by the state of Rhode Island and municipalities in Colorado, Maryland, California and Hawaii.


Six years have passed since the first climate cases were filed in the US, and courts have not yet heard the merits of the cases as fossil fuel companies have succeeded in delaying them. In March, the Biden administration argued that the cases belonged in state court, marking a reversal of the position taken by the Trump administration when the supreme court last considered the issue.


The Rhode Island attorney general, Peter Neronha, said his state was now finally preparing for trial after “nearly half a decade of delay tactics” by the industry. A joint statement from the California cities of Santa Cruz, San Mateo and Richmond and Marin county said the oil companies knew the dangers of fossil fuels but “deceived and failed to warn consumers about it even as they carried on pocketing trillions of dollars in profits”.


The cases have been compared to tobacco lawsuits in the 1990s that resulted in a settlement of more than $200bn and changed how cigarettes are advertised and sold in the US.


“It was a really amazing feeling to see that the supreme court was ruling in a very logical way by continuing with the unanimous decisions that have been made in the previous courts to not [grant petitions for review] and to allow these cases to move forward,” said Delta Merner, lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation.


“It removes this dam that industry has been building to prevent these cases from being heard on their merits,” she said. “We can finally have the real conversations about what the industry knew and what their actions were despite that knowledge.”

 
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