By Karen Savage
As tens of thousands of Californians fled their homes last week to escape wildfires, an ongoing disaster exacerbated by climate change, several municipalities urged the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to allow a lawsuit aimed at holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in climate change to proceed.
The cities of Imperial Beach, Richmond, and Santa Cruz, along with the counties of Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz are suing Chevron, Exxon, Shell, Citgo, ConocoPhillips, and dozens of other fossil fuel companies, alleging they have known for decades that their products cause climate change. The complaints say that instead of warning the public about the dangers, the companies engaged in a public relations campaign to protect their profits.
The municipalities allege violations of several state laws, including public nuisance laws, and are seeking compensation for climate change-related damages. They have so far succeeded in convincing the appeals court that the cases should be heard in state court, where they were filed, instead of in federal court, where the companies believe they will have a better chance of beating them. Earlier this month, the companies asked the Ninth Circuit to stay its May decision to return the cases to state court.
California’s current wildfires have helped to drive home the urgency of the communities’ cases. The state’s wildfire season has grown longer and more intense in recent years as the atmosphere warms, the high temperatures drying groundcover and creating ample fuel for the fires.
Over the past week, more than 78,000 acres have burned in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties alone. Thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate, including some who live in areas rarely affected by wildfires. Evacuations have been ordered in parts of the city of Santa Cruz and at least one person in Santa Cruz County has died.
Thunderstorms embedded in the remnants of Hurricane Genevieve are expected to pass through the Bay area early this week, potentially sparking more fires and causing even more harm.
In court, the fossil fuel companies have argued they will suffer ‘irremediable harms’ if the cases are allowed to proceed in state court before the Supreme Court decides whether it will weigh in.
The municipalities, struggling to deal with the wildfires’ immediate impacts, contend that’s not the case.
“Merits proceedings in these cases have already been stayed for almost three years due to defendants’ meritless appeals,” attorneys for the municipalities wrote. “It is time for these cases to proceed in state court, where they were filed and where they belong.”
That jurisdictional battle has played out in dozens of similar climate change-related suits filed across the country, with the companies using many of the same arguments in the different appellate circuits. But so far, the municipalities have almost universally succeeded in steering them to state court, and the companies are pressing a series of appeals.
The request to halt the California suits is “the latest in a line of increasingly strained attempts to prevent these cases from moving forward in state court,” attorneys for the municipalities wrote in a brief filed Thursday opposing the companies’ request.
The municipalities maintain that the companies are arguing a legal technicality and even if the high court were to agree to hear the case and were to agree to reverse the lower court’s decision, the case would likely still end up in state court.
“Only one judge, in one district court, has ever found federal subject matter jurisdiction in any of the pending public nuisance/state tort cases brought in recent years against energy company defendants for climate impacts, and that ruling was reversed on appeal,” attorneys wrote.