Supreme Court lets climate change lawsuit proceed

A group of visitors at Constellation Energy's coal-fired Brandon Shores Power Plant watched water vapor being released from a scrubber in Anne Arundel County, Md.
A group of visitors at Constellation Energy's coal-fired Brandon Shores Power Plant watched water vapor being released from a scrubber in Anne Arundel County, Md.Shannon Jensen/New York Times/File 2012

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a request from more than two dozen multinational energy companies to block a state court lawsuit brought by the city of Baltimore seeking to hold the companies accountable for their role in changing the Earth’s climate.

The companies want to move the suit to federal court, and they had asked the justices to halt proceedings in state court while the question of which court should hear the case was resolved.

The Supreme Court’s brief order gave no reasons. It noted that Justice Samuel Alito had disqualified himself from the case, presumably because of a financial conflict.


The case, BP PLC v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 19A368, is one of more than a dozen filed by state and local governments around the nation seeking compensation for what they said were injuries caused by the energy companies’ conduct.

In its suit, Baltimore said the companies’ “production, promotion, and marketing of fossil fuel products, simultaneous concealment of the known hazards of those products, and their championing of anti-science campaigns” harmed the city, which “is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding.”

The battle, for now, is mostly about whether the suit belongs in state court.

Judge Ellen L. Hollander of the US District Court in Baltimore rejected what she called the companies’ “laundry list” of reasons for trying to move the Baltimore case to federal court, and the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit refused to stay that ruling while it considers an appeal.

In the Supreme Court, the energy companies argued that the issues in the case require adjudication in federal court.

“It is difficult to imagine,” they told the justices in court papers, “claims that more clearly implicate substantial questions of federal law and require uniform disposition than the claims at issue here, which seek to transform the nation’s energy, environmental, national security, and foreign policies by punishing energy companies for lawfully supplying necessary oil and gas resources.”


Letting the state court suit move forward in the meantime, the companies said, would subject them to needless litigation expenses. Baltimore responded that such costs did not amount to the sort of irreparable injury that would warrant a stay of proceedings while the question of the proper forum is resolved.

The companies may be suspicious that the plaintiffs will have a home-court advantage before local judges in state court. They also hope that federal courts will rule that federal law displaces the plaintiffs’ central legal theory, that the companies can be held responsible under state law for creating a public nuisance.

In 2011, the Supreme Court rejected a nuisance suit from six states invoking federal common law that had sought to force major electric utilities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, said the plaintiffs were making their case in the wrong forum. Under the Clean Air Act, she wrote, the matter must be addressed by the Environmental Protection Agency rather than by the courts.

The court did not rule, however, on whether federal law displaces state-law nuisance suits.