Baltimore sues oil companies over climate impacts

Source: Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Baltimore last week sued multiple oil companies for climate change damages, joining a swath of governments across the country seeking money to deal with sea-level rise, extreme rain, drought and heat waves.

The country’s fifth-largest city filed the case against conglomerates that include Chevron Corp., BP PLC, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Citgo Petroleum Corp. and Consol Energy Inc., as well as trade groups American Petroleum Institute and Western States Petroleum Association. Baltimore filed the case in the state’s Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

The case charges the companies with creating a public nuisance, failure to warn, negligence, trespass and violation of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act. The suit says that the companies through their “extraction, promotion, marketing and sale of fossil fuel products” caused 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions between 1965 and 2015. As in similar cases, it claims that oil companies hid information that climate change was happening while protecting their own assets.

“These oil and gas companies knew for decades that their products would harm communities like ours, and we’re going to hold them accountable,” Andre Davis, the Baltimore city solicitor, said in a statement. “Baltimore’s residents, workers, and businesses shouldn’t have to pay for the damage knowingly caused by these companies.”

Oil companies in similar suits have argued that the courts are not the place to deal with the issue.

Baltimore joined a wave of suits against oil companies filed by cities and counties in California, Washington, Colorado and New York. In addition, Rhode Island has filed suit. The Manufacturers’ Accountability Project (MAP), an ally of the oil industry, called for lawmaker action to stop the trend of climate-based lawsuits against oil companies.

“It’s time for politicians and trial lawyers to put an end to this frivolous litigation,” Lindsey de la Torre, MAP executive director, said in a statement. “Taxpayer resources should not be used for baseless lawsuits that are designed to enrich trial lawyers and grab headlines for politicians. This abuse of our legal system does nothing to advance meaningful solutions, which manufacturers are focused on every day.”

The suit came a day after Reagan appointee Judge John Keenan in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York threw out a lawsuit New York City filed against Big Oil. It was the second such case tossed in federal court. Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, a Clinton appointee, last month granted the request from the five largest oil companies to dismiss cases brought by San Francisco and Oakland, Calif.

Davis said this case is different, as it’s in state court.

“The ruling in the New York case should not have any impact on our lawsuit because its dismissal was based on analyses of federal common law,” Davis said. “Our lawsuit is based solely on state law for damages that are occurring solely in Baltimore.”

Keenan in his ruling said that “climate change is a fact of life” but an issue that “must be addressed by the two other branches of government” and not the courts. Davis rebuffed that argument.

“The New York decision essentially concludes that no court anywhere can hold the oil companies accountable for the damage they’re causing in communities like ours — no matter how severe those injuries — because, apparently, only elected officials are allowed to do anything about the consequences of global warming,” Davis added. “Despite the federal court’s unfounded fear that legal solutions will prevent political ones, the justice system is not powerless to give relief to local communities that are harmed by global warming and rising sea levels.”

He noted that in California, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ruled that a similar suit belonged in state court. That was in a case brought by Imperial Beach, San Mateo, Marin County, Richmond, Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County against more than two dozen fossil fuel companies and trade associations. The oil interests appealed that ruling. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will decide where the cases land.

Baltimore is represented by California-based law firm Sher Edling LLP, which represents Imperial Beach, Marin and San Mateo counties, Richmond, Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz County.

2 severe storms in 2 years

Baltimore said that it’s particularly vulnerable to the impacts of sea-level rise, as it has a densely developed coastline and substantial low-lying areas. It called its port and waterfront “extremely important assets to the City, providing an abundance of jobs as well as some of the City’s strongest property tax base.”

“Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is a prominent tourist destination attracting more than 20 million visitors each year,” the city statement said. “Sea-level rise will present short- and long-term challenges to the Inner Harbor, along with other waterfront communities.”

A severe storm with rain and flash floods hit the area two months ago. The odds of that storm were 0.1 percent, making it a so-called 1,000-year storm. Yet it was the second such storm to hit the area in two years. The effects of extreme rain in 2016 killed two people in neighboring Ellicott City, the lawsuit said.

The American Meteorological Society and others have said those are influenced by “warming of the planet caused by increases in greenhouse gases from fossil fuels,” the city said.

The Center for Climate Integrity lauded the lawsuit.

“We expect that communities across the country will continue to seek remedies in the courts to ensure that climate polluters, not taxpayers, pay the massive costs of climate adaptation,” Richard Wiles, executive director of the group, said in a statement.

“The catastrophic impacts of climate change predicted by companies like Exxon decades ago have arrived. It’s only fitting then that the wave of lawsuits the industry have long feared and planned for have as well. The people of Baltimore deserve their day in court.”