The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an appeal by energy companies including BP PLC, Chevron Corp, Exxon Mobil Corp and Royal Dutch Shell PLC contesting a lawsuit by the city of Baltimore seeking damages for the impact of global climate change.
The justices will weigh whether the lawsuit must be heard in state court as the city would prefer or in federal court, which corporate defendants generally view as a more favorable venue. The suit targets 21 U.S. and foreign energy companies that extract, produce, distribute or sell fossil fuels.
The outcome could affect around a dozen similar lawsuits by U.S. states, cities and counties including Rhode Island and New York City seeking to hold such companies liable for the impact of climate change.
Baltimore and the other jurisdictions are seeking damages under state law for the harms they said they have sustained due to climate change, which they attribute in part to the companies’ role in producing fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The plaintiffs have said they have had to spend more on infrastructure such as flood control measures to combat sea-level rise caused by a warming climate. Climate change has been melting land-based ice sheets and glaciers.
The Supreme Court in 2019 declined the companies’ emergency request to put the Baltimore litigation on hold after a federal judge ruled that the case should be heard in state court. In March, the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision.
In the absence of federal legislation in the bitterly divided U.S. Congress targeting climate change, the lawsuits are the latest effort to force action via litigation.
The Supreme Court in a landmark 2007 ruling said that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that could be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Under Democratic President Barack Obama, the agency issued the first-ever regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gases. But efforts in Congress to enact sweeping climate change legislation have failed.
The court took action in the case three days before it begins its new nine-month term short one justice after the Sept. 18 death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. President Donald Trump has nominated federal appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg.