California Communities, Big Oil Go to Court Over Future of Climate Lawsuits

Pasadena, California – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hold two oral arguments on Wednesday, February 5, to consider whether climate damages lawsuits brought against major fossil fuel companies by eight California municipalities should be heard in state or federal court, and whether lawsuits brought by San Francisco and Oakland should proceed if they are not sent back to state court. 

“These cases are vital to making sure fossil fuel companies are held accountable for causing climate change, lying to the public about it, and leaving residents and taxpayers with a bill for billions of dollars in damages,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, which has filed amicus briefs in support of plaintiffs.

“Fossil fuel companies knew 40 years ago that their products would lead to stronger storms, rising seas, larger wildfires, and other climate disasters,” Wiles said. “Now they want to escape all accountability for the billions of dollars in damages they knowingly caused. These local officials should be applauded for standing up and insisting that the companies who created the climate crisis pay their fair share of the damages.”

The hearings will begin at 9 a.m. PST in courtroom 3 of the Richard H. Chambers Courthouse (125 South Grand Avenue, Pasadena, CA) and livestreamed here https://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/media/live_oral_arguments.php

Background:

In separate lawsuits, the California municipalities argue that major fossil fuel companies — including Exxon, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell — are responsible for exposing their communities to an onslaught of threats from climate change, including sea-level rise, flooding, wildfires, heatwaves, and extreme weather events caused by fossil fuel products and a decades-long denial and disinformation campaign to deceive the public about the harms associated with their products. The municipalities argue that these companies should pay their fair share of the enormous costs associated with planning for and adapting to climate-related risks, including threats to infrastructure, homes, and businesses.

A Center for Climate Integrity study estimated that California will need to spend $22 billion on seawalls to defend against unavoidable sea level rise by 2040. The estimated seawall costs for each community involved in next week’s arguments are:

  • Marin County: $1 billion+ (6th most in California) 
  • San Mateo County: $784 million+
  • Santa Cruz County: $758 million+
  • San Francisco: $256 million+
  • Imperial Beach: $211 million+
  • Richmond: $154 million+
  • Santa Cruz: $96 million+
  • Oakland: $68 million+

Fossil fuel industry defendants have repeatedly sought to move these and similar cases from state to federal court, while the municipalities argue that the cases should be heard in state court, just as many cases against the tobacco and opioid industries, who similarly inflicted billions of dollars in costs on communities, were heard and decided in state court. 

To date, four of the five federal district court judges to have considered this question have ruled in favor of the municipal plaintiffs that the lawsuits should be heard in state court, where they were originally filed.

The first hearing on Feb. 5 will concern lawsuits brought by the counties of Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz, and the cities of Imperial Beach, Richmond, and Santa Cruz. The three-judge panel will consider a district court’s decision to remand these lawsuits back to state court. 

The second hearing will concern cases brought by the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, which were not remanded back to state court and were subsequently dismissed by a district court.

In December, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard similar jurisdictional arguments in the City of Baltimore’s climate damages lawsuit, and a decision is expected soon — the first such decision from a federal appellate court.

Read the Center for Climate Integrity’s friend-of-the-court briefs in the cases here and here.

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