In 2019, We Will Learn A Lot About the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Climate Change Culpability

Sam Duggan, MJLST Staffer

Several lawsuits, filed in 2017 and 2018, are seeking damages from fossil fuel companies for harms caused by climate change. Interestingly, the fossil fuel companies are conceding that climate change is real, it is exacerbated by burning fossil fuels, and it is causing injuries within the United States. For example, during a recent trial where the cities Oakland and San Francisco sued numerous fossil fuel companies for climate-related damages, an attorney representing Chevron said “Chevron accepts the consensus in the scientific communities on climate change. . . There’s no debate about climate science.” Yet, the fossil fuel companies also state that plaintiffs’ claims for nuisance and trespass, among others, must be dismissed because balancing the positive and negative externalities of fossil fuel use is a nonjusticiable political question, and the claims are otherwise displaced by the Clean Air Act. So far, the courts have largely sided with the fossil fuel companies. See City of Oakland v. BP; City of New York v. BP. Other similar cases will likely be decided this year.

Importantly, however, political question abstention and Clean Air Act displacement become less controlling depending on whether the fossil fuel companies knew about the risks of burning fossil fuels (they did), and took affirmative steps to convince the public and regulators there were no risks (they likely did)? If so, these companies may be liable under consumer protection and products liability laws just as tobacco companies were liable for their disinformation campaigns that obscured the hazards of smoking cigarettes. Lawsuits brought by plaintiff in Colorado, Maryland, and others are pursuing these legal theories, and courts will likely reach the merits this year.

Similarly, the states of New York and Massachusetts brought lawsuits against fossil fuel companies for investor fraud. These lawsuits allege, for example, that ExxonMobil perpetrated a “longstanding fraudulent scheme … to deceive investors and the investment community … concerning the company’s management of the risks posed to its business by climate change.” To support their claims, Attorneys General from New York and Massachusetts have vigorously sought discovery of Exxon’s internal communications and research—Exxon aggressively protested and countersued. In January 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a discovery dispute between Massachusetts and Exxon, therefore it allowed discovery of 40-years of Exxon’s climate-related documents. This discovery request promises to color the landscape of fossil fuel industry liability. 2019 may become a watershed year for holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for its contribution to climate change—or not.