The Supreme Court Sidesteps a Full Climate Change Ruling, Handing Industry a Procedural Win

Rather than rule on whether oil and gas companies should pay damages related to climate change, the high court sent Baltimore’s case back to the lower courts.

A view of the Supreme Court at dusk, January 31, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
A view of the Supreme Court at dusk, January 31, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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The fossil fuel industry won a technical decision on Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its favor on procedural grounds and sent the city of Baltimore’s climate change lawsuit back to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for further argument. 

Although the high court sided with the industry, including oil giants Exxon, Chevron and Shell, the ruling fell far short of being a sweeping rebuke of the climate change lawsuits that have been filed by two dozen city, county and state governments, which the industry has been fighting for nearly four years.

The court’s ruling did not go to the heart of the claims made by Baltimore that the industry should be held financially responsible for damages to the city from sea level rise, extreme weather, flooding and heat waves related to climate change.

“The merits of that claim have nothing to do with this appeal,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the 7-1 majority. “The only question before us is one of civil procedure.”


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Nor did the Court’s opinion support the industry’s wish that the case be tried in federal rather than state court, where the oil and gas interests had prevailed in earlier lawsuits that focused not on physical damages caused by extreme weather, but on considerations related to greenhouse gas emissions under the federal Clean Air Act. 

The Supreme Court instead sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit Court for further consideration of the industry’s arguments. 

The high court found that the Fourth Circuit erred when it only reviewed part of a district court’s decision to move the case to state court. The companies had identified a number of federal statutes and made several related arguments that they believed supported their contention that the case should be tried in federal court. 

The Fourth Circuit, the high court held, considered and rejected just one of the industry’s arguments—that oil and gas companies’ exploration, drilling and production operations took place at the federal government’s behest. 

“The Fourth Circuit erred in holding that it lacked jurisdiction to consider all of the defendants’ grounds for removal,” Gorsuch wrote.

He was joined in the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying: “I fear today’s decision will reward defendants for raising strained theories of removal.” Justice Samuel Alito did not participate in the case. Court disclosures show he owns stocks in two oil companies involved in the litigation.

Sara Gross, chief of Baltimore’s Affirmative Litigation Division, said the city has no worries about the fate of its case based on the court’s ruling, saying any additional arguments the industry can make have already been rejected by federal judges hearing similar cases in other courts across the country.

“While this isn’t the outcome we wanted, we are fully confident that the City will prevail again when the remaining issues are considered by the Court of Appeals,” she said. 

The ruling, however narrow, was hailed by the industry.  

“Today’s decision from the Supreme Court addresses an important issue of federal appellate jurisdiction, and Chevron looks forward to showing in the next stage of the proceedings why this case belongs squarely in federal court,” said Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall.

Federal court is the appropriate venue for this case and others because federal policy is the overarching standard by which to judge climate lawsuits rather than in state courts where the industry risks being subjected to a jumble of various laws, he said.

Although there is no immediate fallout for dozens of similar climate lawsuits, the ruling ultimately could help the companies in their fight to have the cases heard in federal court, a legal venue seen as more agreeable to their position.

The Supreme Court’s decision allows the industry to assert a number of arguments for federal jurisdiction, said Lawrence Ebner, executive vice president and general counsel for the Atlantic Legal Foundation, an organization that filed an amicus brief supporting the industry.

“The opinion makes it clear that federal courts of appeals will be able to review all grounds for removing climate-change suits from state to federal court,” he said. 

“As a result, it will be more difficult for climate change plaintiffs to avoid litigating their claims in federal court, even if initially filed in state court and purport to be limited to state-law claims.”

Pat Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at the Vermont Law School, said there is no larger message to be gleaned from Monday’s ruling.

“Gorsuch made it clear the decision was purely a matter of civil procedure having nothing to do with the merits of the claims,” he said.

“It’s significant considering Gorsuch firmly rejected the oil companies’ argument that the claims are foreclosed by federal law and should all be dismissed. It wasn’t just an argument for transferring the cases to federal court. It was an argument that the claims have no merit anywhere.”

Daniel Jacobs, a former U.S. Department of Justice environmental enforcement attorney now affiliated with the Los Angeles law firm of Enenstein, Pham and Glass, said the ultimate outcome of the case the Supreme Court put back in the hands of the lower court may not be “inconsequential to this case or other climate cases.”

“It remains to be seen whether the narrow win today will make a difference—i.e., whether they ultimately will prevail in their effort to have the case heard in federal, not state, court,” he said. “In this case, it means that the defendants will have another shot at the apple.” 

The Supreme Court ruling comes after lower federal courts recently have taken conflicting stands on a number of climate cases. New York City’s first climate change case, filed in 2018, was rejected last month by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan that reprimanded the city for trying to usurp the regulatory authority of the government.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Hawaii has given the go-ahead to Maui and Honolulu to pursue its cases seeking to expose how fossil fuels have led to climate change and all of the deleterious climatic changes associated with a warming planet. 

In the Baltimore case, the high court initially agreed to hear a request by the oil and gas industry to review a ruling by the Fourth Circuit affirming a federal district judge’s decision to allow the city’s lawsuit to be tried in state, rather than federal court. 

But once the companies, including Exxon, Chevron and Shell, were before the Supreme Court, they went further and pressed the justices to find that a global issue like climate change should not be subject to 50 separate state court systems. 

Baltimore filed suit in 2018 seeking damages from 26 fossil fuel companies related to everything from coastal flooding that threatens the city’s bustling waterfront to health threats to people from rising heat.

The Baltimore case largely mirrors climate cases that were first filed in 2017 by a city and two counties in California. Since then, a wave of lawsuits have been filed in courts from Honolulu to New York seeking climate-related damages. 

The backbone of the Baltimore case as well as the other cases is built around allegations the industry knew for nearly 50 years that the use of fossil fuels created greenhouse gases responsible for global warming but engaged in a coordinated effort to hide that understanding. Much of the supporting documentation was disclosed in a 2015 Inside Climate News series two years before the first lawsuits were filed.

The Supreme Court’s ruling comes just six weeks after the Second Circuit, in its April 1 decision, scolded New York City officials for trying to hold the industry accountable for climate change damages. A three-judge panel in Manhattan affirmed a lower court’s decision to toss out the city’s 2018 lawsuit, which was originally filed in federal court.

The court said global warming “is a uniquely international concern” that falls under federal, not state, law; and even then the courts must be wary. Only the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate domestic greenhouse gas emissions, the unanimous three-judge panel decided.

“Federal courts must proceed cautiously when venturing into the international arena so as to avoid unintentionally stepping on the toes of the political branches,” the ruling decided by two judges appointed by Donald Trump and one by President Jimmy Carter.

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New York City “sidestepped” federal procedure with a state-law tort suit against the energy companies, even though their activity of producing and selling fossil fuel products around the world is “admittedly legal,” according to the court’s opinion last month. 

“In so doing, the City effectively seeks to replace these carefully crafted frameworks—which are the product of the political process—with a patchwork of claims under state nuisance law,” the court said.

“We cannot condone such an action.”

Three weeks later, the city took another swing at the fossil fuel industry. This time the city filed a lawsuit in state court rather than federal court. The new complaint against four oil companies, filed on April 22, focuses on deceptive trade practices and violations of city consumer protection laws claiming the companies promoted their products as eco-friendly while failing to disclose their harmful effects on the climate.

It’s widely acknowledged that having the cases tried in state courts under local laws—such as product liability, deceptive advertising and unfair trade practices—gives the advantage to the cities, counties and states suing the industry.

Beyond wanting to settle the Baltimore and other cases in federal court, the industry ultimately wants the court to agree that a global issue like climate change is best suited for legislative action and not litigated in the courts.

The Supreme Court also is being asked by the fossil fuel industry to overturn lower federal court decisions that directed lawsuits against it by the cities of San Francisco; Oakland; Charleston, South Carolina and the state of Delaware, be tried in state courts. 

The court has not decided whether to take up those four cases but has asked for briefings from both defendants and plaintiffs spelling out reasons for and against the high court becoming involved. 

Like the Baltimore case, the four new appeal requests do not address directly the merits of the lawsuits, but rather argue against technical legal points used by the federal appellate courts to justify remanding the cases to state court for trials. The new round of petitions to the Supreme Court cite issues not addressed in the Baltimore case. 

Plaintiffs in more than half of the nearly two dozen climate lawsuits filed in the last three years have successfully overcome legal attempts by the industry to force the cases into federal court.

One of the most recent decisions was handed down by a federal judge overseeing cases filed by the city and county of Honolulu and the county of Maui. 

The ruling is a straightforward rebuke of the industry’s argument that federal court is the most appropriate venue for litigating something as nationally and internationally significant as the consequences of extracting and burning fossil fuel, an argument used successfully in climate cases litigated a decade ago.

U.S. District Court Judge Derrick Watson, who was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama, told the industry its arguments were out of tune with the allegations against it. 

“The principal problem with Defendants’ arguments is that they misconstrue Plaintiffs’ claims,” Watson wrote. “More specifically, contrary to Defendants’ contentions, Plaintiffs have chosen to pursue claims that target Defendants’ alleged concealment of the dangers of fossil fuels, rather than the acts of extracting, processing, and delivering those fuels.”