The Supreme Court Is Taking Critical Step Towards Resolving Frivolous Climate Suits

By Craig Richardson

Sometimes the most important Supreme Court decisions are overlooked because of their technical nature. That is the case with the Supreme Court’s choice to hear jurisdictional claims in B.P. P.L.C., et al. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore. The Court’s ruling will either allow cities to pursue superfluous nuisance claims against energy companies in state courts or limit the suits to federal courts that are less prone to accept broad liability claims.    

These jurisdictional claims are significant because they set the appropriate scope of appellate review for these suits. Lawsuits predicated on federal laws and involving federal officers’ actions should be decided at the federal level. By agreeing to hear arguments in the Baltimore case, the Supreme Court is taking a crucial step towards setting a consistent legal playing field.   

The Supreme Court will not rule on the merits of Baltimore’s claims. Instead, they will decide whether the defendants can appeal a jurisdictional claim after a federal court rejects it. Under existing law, it is clear the defendant can appeal aspects of the decision, but not whether the whole claim is fair game. A ruling in favor of the defendants would force multiple Circuit Courts to reevaluate their previous rulings and rehear jurisdictional claims by the energy companies. 

Even though the justices won’t decide on the merits, the key is the context of Baltimore’s lawsuit. For years, city and state officials have been – in partnership with trial lawyers and leftist environmental groups – twisting the meaning of public nuisance laws to sue energy companies for their alleged contributions to climate change, even though these companies aren’t breaking the law. In recent months, localities have filed even more suits, making it especially important that lower courts know whether these cases should be resolved at the federal or state level.    

These suits aren’t about helping the environment but are filed by leftist politicians and their backers hoping to score political points as they desperately attempt to fill their city or state coffers. A senior Rhode Island official said the state’s climate lawsuit was designed to create a “sustainable funding stream” for Rhode Island. The state is desperate for funding because decades of big-spending policies have left Rhode Island officials with a budget deficit approaching $160 million.    

In another instance, San Mateo County filed a lawsuit claiming there was a 93% risk of deadly floods by 2050 while telling municipal investors they had nothing to worry about. The S.E.C. is now investigating the county for fraud, and it is clear its lawsuit is motivated by politics, not science.   

Instead of addressing climate change or working to build a sustainable future, leftist officials are trying to profit off energy companies, which would drive up the cost for all Americans. Given the clear political undertones of these cases, and the potential devastating impact on the U.S. economy, they must receive a fair hearing in a neutral venue.   

It shouldn’t be surprising that state and city officials are fighting to have the cases heard in the state courts, the most favorable jurisdictions possible for them. Local officials are confident they can find a state judge who will issue a broad ruling against the energy companies, which would be difficult to overturn on appeal, regardless of the merits.    

This outcome would be a disaster for energy companies and their customers, who would have to worry about individual state judges’ whims. These judges could create a mishmash of legal rulings that ends up being totally incoherent. It is easy to imagine a scenario where the defendants prevail in most of these frivolous lawsuits but lose a few in unfriendly jurisdictions and all of us will pay the price monetarily.   

Additionally, state courts shouldn’t be addressing national political issues, especially on climate change, an issue that in the past the Supreme Court ruled should be handled by Congress and the president, not state courts. If laws need to be changed, Congress should change them, instead of having individual judges legislate from the bench. Some courts have already dismissed similar climate suits for this very reason. Allowing state courts to decide debates of global importance is a recipe for disaster.    

Generally, federal courts “are far less likely, as a whole and with some exceptions, to be willing to entertain expansive theories of liability than state courts,” according to George Mason University law professor Donald Kochan. This means federal courts are unlikely to perform legal gymnastics to try and hold energy companies accountable when it is clear they are operating within the law and have permits from the government.    

Craig Richardson is president of the Energy & Environment Legal Institute.   

This article appeared on the RealClearEnergy website at https://www.realclearenergy.org/articles/2020/10/12/the_supreme_court_is_takingcriticalstep_towards_resolving_frivolous_climate_suits_580452.html


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