California Cities and Counties File Suit Against Major Energy Companies Over Role in Climate Change

Fri Dec 7th, On Environmental Law, by

In July of 2017, several California cities and counties lodged suits against dozens of oil, gas, and coal companies in California State Court over their alleged role in contributing to climate change-related damages across the state. The counties of Marin and San Mateo, along with the city of Imperial Beach, filed lawsuits alleging that several companies, including BP p.l.c., Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips Co., and Exxon Mobil Corp., “have promoted and profited from a massive increase in the extraction and consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas, which has in turn caused an enormous, foreseeable, and avoidable increase in global greenhouse gas pollution and a concordant increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases.” Furthermore, plaintiffs claim that Defendants not only knew that the greenhouse gas emissions from their products would have significant impacts on Earth’s climate and sea levels, but that they actively worked to conceal damages associated with continued high use and combustion of such products, undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation, and engage in campaigns to promote the use of their products at even greater volumes.

Plaintiffs go on to allege that the increase in concentration of greenhouse gases has substantially contributed to a wide range of climate-related effects such as sea level rise, ocean acidification, and extreme weather events, and that the costs of these effects is borne by California’s residents, taxpayers, and infrastructure. In their complaint, Plaintiffs bring eight separate causes of action including Public Nuisance, Negligence, Strict Liability, and Trespass.  

On August 24, 2017 Defendants removed the case to federal court based on the claim that the “court has original federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, because the Complaint arises under federal laws and treaties, and presents substantial federal questions as well as claims that are completely preempted by federal law.” They go on to argue that Plaintiff’s view that a state court may regulate the nationwide activity of key sectors of the American economy puts at issue long-established federal statutory, regulatory, and constitutional issues and frameworks.

In March of 2018, however, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria remanded the case back to California State Court. Citing the Ninth Circuit’s 2012 ruling in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, Judge Chhabria argued that “because federal common law does not govern the plaintiffs’ claims, it also does not preclude them from asserting the state law claims in these lawsuits.”

In doing so, Judge Chhabria distanced himself from a position voiced by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who argued that the Kivalina decision did not apply to two very similar cases involving claims made against oil companies by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland. Judge Alsup had found “that San Francisco and Oakland’s current lawsuits are materially different from Kivalina such that federal common law could play a role in the current lawsuits brought by the localities even while it could not in Kivalina.”

In response, Plaintiffs have appealed Judge Chhabria’s decision to remand the case to state court, arguing that he misinterprets the Kivalina decision and that Plaintiff’s claims must be governed by federal common law.

The Environmental Attorneys at Bick Law LLP will continue to monitor the progression of lawsuits related to climate change and their potential impacts on business across the country.

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