Big Oil suffers setback in R.I. climate fight

Source: By Jennifer Hijazi, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, November 1, 2020

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Ocean State’s battle to put firms like Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Chevron Corp. on the hook for climate impacts may remain in the Providence court where the challenge was initially filed.

Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson struck down industry attorneys’ arguments that the case belongs in federal court, where the companies may enjoy a legal advantage.

“The state court complaint lists state causes of action: public nuisance, various products liability claims, trespass, impairment of public trust resources, and violation of the state’s Environmental Rights Act,” wrote Thompson, an Obama appointee.

“The theories of liability vary to fit each cause of action, but at its core, Rhode Island’s claim is simple: the oil companies knew what fossil fuels were doing to the environment and continued to sell them anyway, all while misleading consumers about the true impact of the products,” she continued.

The 1st Circuit’s ruling affirms an order from a lower bench that sent Rhode Island’s dispute back to state court. While remand orders are not typically reviewable by circuit courts, industry lawyers have argued that they can appeal the issue when a case involves federal officers.

Appeals court judges have largely disagreed, but the Supreme Court said last month that it will weigh in on the federal officer question. The high court case, which stems from a climate lawsuit filed by Baltimore, has the potential to derail — or severely delay — Rhode Island’s fight and others like it.

Baltimore and Rhode Island are among more than a dozen U.S. cities, counties and states that are suing major energy companies for misleading consumers about how the production of fossil fuels contributes to climate change effects like severe storms and eroding coastlines.

Chevron, one of the firms targeted in the Rhode Island lawsuit, said it will be appealing yesterday’s decision in the Supreme Court.

“This case belongs in federal court because it has sweeping implications for national energy policy, national security, foreign policy, and other uniquely federal interests,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in an email.

First Circuit Chief Judge Jeffrey Howard, a George W. Bush appointee, also signed onto the opinion yesterday. Judge Juan Torruella, a Reagan appointee, heard arguments in the case last month but passed away before the decision was issued (Climatewire, Sept. 14).