Maryland’s Capital City Joins a Long Line of Litigants Seeking Climate-Related Damages from the Fossil Fuel Industry

Historic Annapolis, with 17 miles of waterfront on the Chesapeake Bay, says it’s threatened by sea level rise and extensive, destructive flooding.

An aerial view from a drone shows the Maryland State House, on April 16, 2020 in Annapolis, Maryland. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

An aerial view from a drone shows the Maryland State House, on April 16, 2020 in Annapolis, Maryland. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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Annapolis, Maryland’s historic capital, is home to the State House where George Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783.

Another distinction: Over the past 50 years, Annapolis has recorded the greatest increase in average annual nuisance flooding events of any city in the country.

The city highlighted the latter superlative Monday in filing litigation arguing that oil and gas companies should be held liable for damages related to climate change because they’ve known for decades that burning fossil fuels dangerously warms the planet.

“Defendants’ concealment and misrepresentation of their products’ known dangers—and simultaneous promotion of their unrestrained use—drove consumption, and thus greenhouse gas pollution, and thus the climate crisis,” the lawsuit said. It names ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips among the more than two dozen defendants.

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Filed in Anne Arundel County circuit court, the lawsuit alleges that the oil and gas companies engaged in deceptive greenwashing campaigns to hide the reality that climate change causes sea level rise, extreme heat and severe storms that “will become more frequent” and “longer lasting,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit noted that Annapolis, with 17 miles of waterfront on the Chesapeake Bay, is particularly susceptible to sea level rise and prone to damages from related flooding. “The cascading social, economic, and other consequences of those and myriad other environmental changes—all due to anthropogenic global warming—will increase in and around Annapolis,” the lawsuit said.

Sea level rise also threatens the U.S. Naval Academy and the city’s historic and cultural sites, such as the William H. Butler house, where the first African American elected to public office in Maryland lived. City officials say the house must be raised by six to nine feet to protect it against flooding.

“If we are going to take care of our residents and honor our important history as a community, we need to be resilient in the face of climate change,” Mayor Gavin Buckley said in a prepared statement.

“Mitigating the impacts of climate change is expensive. We would not have to spend the kind of money we are forced to spend but for the actions of the fossil fuel industry. This lawsuit shifts the costs back to where they belong, on those whose knowledge, deception and pursuit of profits brought these dangers to our shores.”

Sean Come, a Chevron spokesman, said the lawsuit, among more than two dozen similar actions filed since 2017 by cities, counties and states, is just another “frivolous” case against the industry.

“Suits like this serve only to divert attention and resources away from the collaborative, international efforts that are critical to continuing to develop responses to climate change,” he said. “Chevron will continue working with other stakeholders in the public and private sectors to seek to advance real solutions to the global energy transition.”

Shell Spokeswoman Anna Arata said the company agrees that action is needed now on climate change

“We fully support the need for society to transition to a lower-carbon future and we’re committed to playing our part by addressing our own emissions and helping customers to reduce theirs,” she said. “Addressing a challenge as big as climate change requires a truly collaborative, society-wide approach. We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change.”

A spokesman for Exxon did not respond to a request for comment.

The Annapolis lawsuit said the city could experience almost 200 annual days of flooding by 2030 and 350 days by 2040. It said that climate change “will disproportionately impact people of color, people living in poverty, and other vulnerable communities”

The city is in the midst of a $56 million renovation and resiliency project to protect the City Dock and related structures from flooding caused by sea level rise. By 2040, the city estimates it will also have to spend more than $45 million on four miles of seawalls to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise and storm surge.

The city’s lawsuit alleges violations of six state statutes, including public and private nuisance, negligence, failure to warn, trespass and violations of Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act. The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and an order directing fossil fuel companies to give up their profits and pay for mitigation measures.

The lawsuit cites a series of stories published by Inside Climate News in 2015 based on internal Exxon documents that revealed the extent of the company’s knowledge about the central role of fossil fuels in causing climate change going back to the 1970s.

The first wave of climate cases came three years ago when five cities and three counties in California filed litigation against the fossil fuel industry.  

Those cases were followed in quick succession by lawsuits filed by municipalities in Colorado, the cities of New York and Baltimore, Kings County in Washington state, the state of Rhode Island and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. Most recently, the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Minnesota, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia have all filed lawsuits, along with the cities of Maui in Hawaii; Hoboken, New Jersey; and Charleston, South Carolina.

Like the Annapolis case, most of the previous lawsuits have been filed in state courts, where the localities believe their arguments for property and infrastructure damages will fare best.

The fossil fuel companies, on the other hand, are fighting to have the lawsuits heard in federal court so that they can cite defenses under the Clean Air Act and argue that they should not be forced to pay damages for lawfully providing the nation’s critical energy needs.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court considered jurisdictional arguments in a climate case brought by the city of Baltimore. The city had originally filed suit in Maryland state court, as Annapolis now has, only to have the fossil fuel industry attempt to move the litigation to federal court.

After the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district judge’s opinion to send the Baltimore case back to state court, the oil and gas industry defendants appealed the jurisdictional question to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.

Ultimately, the fossil fuel industry is hoping the high court, now with three appointees of former President Donald Trump and a 6-3 conservative majority, will not only determine that state courts are inappropriate venues for the climate lawsuits, but also agree with its overarching argument that a global issue like climate change cannot be litigated in the courts at all and that, in any event, oil and gas companies should not be penalized for powering the U.S. economy.

If the court allows the lawsuits by the cities, counties and states to proceed at the state level and the localities prevail, the litigation could make the fossil fuels industry, much like the tobacco industry before it, liable for billions of dollars in damages.