Supreme Court clears San Francisco and Oakland lawsuits against big oil companies – CBS San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – Two more ambitious lawsuits would be hard to imagine: In 2017, the cities of Oakland and San Francisco filed separate public nuisance lawsuits against five of the world’s largest energy companies, seeking to keep them responsible for the local effects of sea level rise.

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court refused to dismiss the lawsuits, although the cases still face many serious hurdles.

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The theory of the case is that through the “mass production” of fossil fuels, energy companies – Chevron Corporation, BP LLC, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil Corporation and Royal Dutch Shell PLC – have contributed to “sea level rise. induced by global warming ”, which cities have to spend huge sums to appease.

According to the cities, energy companies should fund a “climate change adaptation program”, which would include the construction of dikes and other necessary infrastructure due to climate change.

Affirming the claims “on behalf of the people of the State of California,” the lawsuits were originally filed under state law in the superior courts of Alameda and San Francisco counties.

Unsurprisingly, with billions of dollars at stake, energy companies have hired some of America’s most prominent law firms and attorneys.

Among their first acts: getting cases out of state courts.

In October 2017, the energy companies “withdrew” the two cases from state court in US District Court for the Northern District of California, where they were assigned to District Judge William Alsup.

Referral is a legal process made available to a defendant who is sued in state court where the basis for the claim is that which would support the jurisdiction of the federal courts, especially where the underlying claim is based on the federal law.

The cities challenged the removal, arguing that the public nuisance claims they invoked were quintessential claims of state law, stemming from the power of cities to protect their residents from harm caused by others. They noted that their complaints did not raise any claims under federal law or seek redress under federal law.

The energy companies cited two exceptions to the usual rule that federal jurisdiction is determined solely by reference to the claims raised in a plaintiff’s complaint.

An exception applies where a federal question is necessarily raised by the claimant’s request and the question is of “substantial importance” to the federal system as a whole. The other applies when federal law completely takes precedence over state law.

In February 2018, Alsup found that the exceptions applied. In his view, the rise in sea level necessarily involved the national interests of the United States and directly involved its relations with foreign governments. Therefore, prosecutions should be determined according to the uniform standard of federal common law.

Having found the case to be properly withdrawn, Alsup then dealt a fatal blow to the cities. He ruled that there was no valid federal common law claim of public nuisance in a situation where nationally sensitive foreign affairs would necessarily be involved.

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As a result, in June 2018, Alsup dismissed the cases.

The cities appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which in August 2020 overturned the decision. The court ruled that Alsup was wrong in concluding that federal law was of substantial importance to the claims.

In the opinion of the appeals court, the question of whether energy companies “can be held responsible for public nuisances … and be forced to spend billions of dollars in reduction is undoubtedly an important policy question,” but it does not raise a substantive issue of federal responsibility. law.”

The court, however, did not send the case back to state court.

The energy companies had raised several other grounds of federal jurisdiction that Alsup failed to consider given its finding that there was a basis for federal jurisdiction at common law.

The court returned the case to Alsup to consider these other arguments.

That effort was stalled, however, when energy companies filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 9th Circuit ruling.

While this motion was pending, Alsup asked the parties to set out the additional jurisdictional points, but it did not schedule a hearing and did not rule.

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to consider the case, freeing Alsup from scheduling a hearing to consider alternative jurisdictional arguments.

In short, after years of litigation, the question of which court should hear these ambitious cases is still very uncertain.

In a joint statement reflecting some frustration with the pace of proceedings, Barbara Parker and Dennis Herrera, municipal attorneys for Oakland and San Francisco, respectively, said: “It has been almost four years since we filed our complaints, and now is the time to move the cases forward on behalf of our residents and taxpayers to hold these fossil fuel companies accountable for their decades of deception and disinformation. “

Braden Reddall, spokesperson for Chevron, said the lawsuits wrongly sought to hold Chevron responsible for “global conduct dating back to the Industrial Revolution,” and expressed optimism that the complaints on the merits would be dismissed. may or may not be heard in state or federal court.

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