Supreme Court Could Make Big Oil Even More Impervious to Climate Change Accountability

ClimateSupreme Court Oil and Gas
Supreme Court Could Make Big Oil Even More Impervious to Climate Change Accountability

Flag and yacht enthusiasts and their colleagues at the Supreme Court have a chance this week to elevate major oil producers to an even higher plane of impunity than they currently enjoy. The Justices will decide on Thursday whether to hear Sunoco v. Honolulu, an appeal for the Court to block a host of lawsuits from states and cities around the country over Big Oil’s decades of deception when it comes to climate change-causing emissions from their products.

The Court has previously allowed these claims to stay at the state level, away from the federal statutes including the Clean Air Act that Big Oil argues should preempt the state-level claims. The claims from the states and cities are modeled in part after tobacco lawsuits, and essentially argue that the companies sold harmful products for years without proper warnings. But these days, the conservative majority is, let’s say, feeling itself. If the court agrees to hear the case at all, it would more or less signal that a ruling in favor of the ExxonMobils and Chevrons out there is coming.

The Hawaii Supreme Court previously refused to dismiss the case, unanimously holding that the lawsuits aren’t actually arguing about cross-state emissions, which would make it a federal matter. “This suit does not seek to regulate emissions and does not seek damages for interstate emissions,” the Court wrote in a unanimous opinion — an opinion that the petitioners, including basically every big oil company in the country, argue is a “breathtaking, extra-territorial application of state law.”

Though this is only one specific case, it will act as a pivot point in states’ legal attempts to hold the industry accountable for climate change (even as some of them attempt legislative versions as well). If the Supreme Court hears the case and rules in favor of Big Oil, it will effectively end dozens of similar cases brought from across the country. If it declines again, more or less ruling that the state-level actions can continue, it might open a floodgate of even more lawsuits.

“This is the end game for the oil companies,” Pat Parenteau, an environmental law expert at the Vermont Law School, told the L.A. Times. “It’s an attempt to knock out all of these cases.”

A decision on whether to hear the case is likely to arrive by mid-June. Actual legal arguments aside, banking on the conservative Justices to do anything but prop up the fossil fuel industry seems foolish at this point.

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