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Supreme Court Considers Baltimore Suit Against Oil Companies Over Climate Change

Jan 19, 2021
Originally published on January 20, 2021 12:13 pm

Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday in a case brought by the city of Baltimore against more than a dozen major oil and gas companies including BP, ExxonMobil and Shell. The city government argued that the fossil fuel giants must pay for the costs of climate change because they knew that their products cause potentially catastrophic global warming.

The Baltimore case is one of more than 20 similar suits brought by cities, states and counties in recent years. The cases make a variety of arguments about why fossil fuel companies bear responsibility for the costs of climate change, including that companies misled the public about the threat burning oil and gas poses to the climate.

The Supreme Court is considering a narrow jurisdictional question: the Baltimore case was filed in state court, but during the 75-minute opening arguments on Tuesday, an attorney for the fossil fuel companies contended that such cases should be tried in federal court.

"These cases have the potential to be quite powerful if they finally see their day in court," says Karen Sokol, a law professor at Loyola University of New Orleans who has written extensively about climate liability cases. Sokol says state courts have a long history of handling cases about consumer protection, including lawsuits involving alleged corporate misinformation campaigns. If the Supreme Court decides in Baltimore's favor, it would likely pave the way for cases against oil and gas companies to proceed in state courts across the country.

But in court filings the fossil fuel industry argues that federal courts are the most appropriate legal venue for such cases. "The issues here are inherently federal," says Phil Goldberg, an attorney with the firm Shook, Hardy and Bacon in Washington, D.C., who represents the National Association of Manufacturers. The association filed a brief in support of oil and gas companies in the Baltimore case.

"This isn't something the energy companies created. This is a byproduct of modern society," Goldberg says. "All the companies are doing is engaging in a lawful business endeavor. And what that is is selling us the energy we need to drive our cars, turn on our lights, heat and cool our homes. And doing that is not a liability-causing event."

Sokol says she believes the fossil fuel industry is trying to avoid state court cases that could expose how companies misled the public about the dangers of burning oil and gas.

"They're basically fighting to keep this out [of] state court because they're desperate to keep the social license that they've cultivated with this disinformation campaign," she says of the fossil fuel industry. "It has never been held to account in this way in this country. It has wielded such economic and political might, it's never had to face a threat quite like this."

Michel Anderson does community outreach work for the clean water advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore. He says climate-driven extreme rain is exacerbating overflows and backups from the city's century-old sewer and stormwater pipes.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

A city underwater

The lawsuits brought by states, cities and counties describe the widespread damage climate change is already causing across the country. Baltimore's 2018 lawsuit paints a picture of a city overwhelmed by global warming. Court filings describe the "cascading social and economic impacts" of climate change in Baltimore, including dramatic increases in flood damage from both rain and sea level rise, increasingly deadly heat waves and massive infrastructure failures exacerbated by extreme weather.

As in many cities, some neighborhoods in Baltimore are heat islands where the temperature is significantly warmer than the surrounding area. In other parts of the city, climate-driven extreme rain routinely turns roads into rivers. Meanwhile, the port city's century-old sewer and stormwater systems are unable to handle both sea level rise and more rain.

"Our stormwater systems are not adequate because they didn't take into account climate-change impacts," says Lisa McNeilly, the director of Baltimore's Office of Sustainability. The city's sewer and stormwater pipes were laid in the early 20th century and, at the time, were state-of-the-art. But the pipes were not designed to handle sea level rise and extreme rain caused by climate change. When a lot of rain falls in a short period of time, raw sewage can flow into city waterways or back up into homes.

Baltimore, like other cities, is experiencing more extreme rain. According to Lisa McNeilly, the director of Baltimore's Office of Sustainability, the city's stormwater systems are not adequately able to handle this increase. The cost of upgrading sewer and storm water pipes to accommodate the extra water is enormous.
Ryan Kellman / NPR

McNeilly says the city government is working as quickly as it can to adapt to more water, but the scale of the work is enormous and the effects of climate change are already abundantly clear.

One example, McNeilly says, is a thunderstorm that hit the city in the summer of 2019. "In one hour, somewhere between 5 and 7 inches fell over a small portion of downtown and some communities east of downtown," she says. "We very quickly had 7 feet of water in these downtown areas."

The thunderstorm happened to hit the city at the same time as a high tide. Sea level rise means higher tides, which means more encroachment of water from the harbor into stormwater pipes that are already overwhelmed by extreme rain. Sea levels are rising more quickly than the global average along much of the U.S. East Coast.

The Baltimore city government estimates that the portion of downtown that regularly floods will increase by nearly 150% in the next 30 years. "It's just mind-numbing," says Bruna Attila, the floodplain manager for the city's Office of Sustainability. "It's overwhelming to think about that."

While city officials declined to comment on the details of the case pending in the Supreme Court, it is clear that the cost of adapting to the new climate far exceeds what the city can afford. Baltimore is not a rich city, and finding money to upgrade aging infrastructure is already a struggle. Global warming is imposing additional costs by accelerating the damage.

In recent years, sinkholes have opened under multiple city streets — likely due to a combination of failing pipes and large amounts of precipitation. In 2014, a line of parked cars crashed onto train tracks in the middle of the city after a retaining wall failed.

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Repairing such damage could cost tens of millions of dollars, on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars required to routinely upgrade drainage and sewer pipes.

Meanwhile, the city's court filings point out that each summer brings longer and more severe heat waves which increase the risk of heat stroke and asthma-related hospital visits, and which require the city to upgrade housing, provide cooling centers and redevelop neighborhoods that have turned into dangerous heat islands.

"These companies must be held accountable. Climate change is a reality," said Andre Davis, the then-solicitor of Baltimore, at a press conference announcing the lawsuit in 2018. "The companies knew of the harm decades ago. If it had been disclosed, the problem of climate change could have been mitigated significantly. That's our claim."

The future of climate liability cases

Virtually none of Baltimore's specific claims about the effects of climate change, or the responsibility of fossil fuel companies, came up on Tuesday when the case was presented before the Supreme Court. The court is only considering the narrow question of whether the case should be allowed to proceed in state court.

The companies, which include some of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, are fighting to keep the case in federal court. They argue that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to global warming are nationwide challenges that should be handled at the national level, ideally outside the courts.

"This has to be done in a thoughtful, centralized way where we focus on innovation and collaboration and not this litigation distraction," says Goldberg, the attorney representing the National Association of Manufacturers.

In their legal arguments, the fossil fuel companies appear to be leaning heavily on the decision in a previous case decided by the Supreme Court in 2011. That case, brought by the state of Connecticut against an electricity company, alleged that the company was liable for releasing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. The Supreme Court's unanimous decision was that the company couldn't be sued for its emissions under federal law.

"It was part of the first wave of climate cases that were pursuing liability [claims] against various parts of the industry — whether it's energy manufacturers, utilities, those who bring us the energy that we all use and need every day — and make them liable for climate change," says Goldberg. Those cases, brought in federal court, were unsuccessful. "We're hopeful that the court will look at this the exact same way it did the previous cases."

But Karen Sokol of Loyola University New Orleans, who has spent much of her career studying climate liability cases, says the new wave of climate liability cases is different. In the last decade, investigative reporting has revealed the extent to which companies knew about the connection between climate change and burning fossil fuels.

Climate science has also matured. It's now possible to detect the effects of global warming in individual weather events, including extreme rain storms, hurricanes, droughts, heat waves and wildfires. The connection between burning fossil fuels and specific damage from extreme weather has never been more verifiable.

Lastly, Sokol says, the new wave of lawsuits have a completely new set of allegations. The first wave of cases, which included the Connecticut case, alleged that companies were liable for greenhouse emissions. The new wave of lawsuits allege deceptive marketing practices by oil and gas companies that billed their products as safe. "That's a very, very different claim," Sokol says.

The Supreme Court will announce its decision later this year on the narrow question of whether the Baltimore case should be considered in state or federal court. If the justices decide in favor of the companies and the case proceeds in federal court, it's possible that the lawsuit will be eventually dismissed without a trial.

However, if the justices decide in favor of Baltimore, it is likely that the case will proceed in Maryland state court, which could require the companies in the case to turn over vast troves of documents about their businesses and marketing practices over the decades.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case brought by the city of Baltimore. Baltimore is arguing that major oil and gas companies should be forced to pay for the costs of climate change. More than 20 cities and states have brought similar suits. This is the first to be considered by the highest court. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Baltimore is an old city. It was once a rich city. But the city's infrastructure was never built for climate change, and Baltimore can't keep up with the costs.

MICHEL ANDERSON: Yeah, so we're basically - we're walking along the Jones Falls.

HERSHER: Michel Anderson does community outreach for the clean water advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore. Construction crews are upgrading pipes that were laid about 100 years ago. It was a state-of-the-art sewer and stormwater system.

ANDERSON: It was considered an engineering marvel at the time. It rivaled the sewers of Paris, from what I read.

HERSHER: Not much of that historic history is obvious in 2020. The system is starting to fail. Pipes have cracked, and they're too small to handle the water during big rains. Anderson points across the river where a sign says health warning.

ANDERSON: That dumps tens of millions of gallons of sewage into the waterway. You know, and that's during severe rainstorms, which increase due to climate change.

HERSHER: Baltimore is getting a lot more rain as the earth heats up. Extreme rainstorms - when a lot of water falls in just a few hours - have increased by about 75% since the 1950s. In 2014, extreme rain helped cause a retaining wall to collapse onto train tracks in central Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).

HERSHER: Someone caught it on tape at the moment it crashed down.

(SOUNDBITE OR ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Screaming).

HERSHER: Thankfully, no one was injured. But the cost to fix the damage was at least $12 million. In another instance, sea level rise and extreme rain drowned downtown in 7 feet of water. In the next 30 years, the city estimates that the portion of downtown Baltimore that will flood frequently will increase by about 150%. A quick look at the city's budget makes it clear that the billions of dollars required to fully upgrade sewers and drainage, build seawalls, reinforce roads and restore wetlands far exceeds what the city can afford on its own. And so in 2018, the mayor and City Council of Baltimore filed a lawsuit against about a dozen major oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell and BP. Then-city solicitor, Andre Davis, announced the suit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDRE DAVIS: These companies must be held accountable. Climate change is a reality.

HERSHER: The city argues that companies should help pay for the costs of climate change because companies have known for decades that fossil fuels cause global warming. More than 20 cities and states have filed similar suits in recent years. Karen Sokol is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

KAREN SOKOL: These cases have the potential to be quite powerful if they finally see their day in court.

HERSHER: The Supreme Court is only considering a narrow question. Where should the case be tried - in state court, as Baltimore argues, or in federal court, as the companies argue? Phil Goldberg is an attorney who represents the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group that filed an amicus brief in support of the oil companies.

PHIL GOLDBERG: This isn't something that the energy companies created. This is a byproduct of modern society.

HERSHER: Goldberg says dealing with the costs of climate change is something Congress should be working on, not the courts.

GOLDBERG: This litigation is really a counterproductive distraction at the end of the day for those of us who really want to get something done on the climate.

HERSHER: Sokol, the law professor, says she thinks cities and states have a strong argument under state law that oil and gas companies have misled the public about the dangers of fossil fuels. If the justices decide in Baltimore's favor, she says, it will pave the way for dozens of cases to proceed across the country against the industry.

SOKOL: It's never been held to account in this way in this country. It's largely wielded such tremendous economic and political might that it's never had to face a threat quite like this.

HERSHER: The Supreme Court will announce its decision later this year.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.