A federal appeals court blocked a multi-state effort aided by Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita to help major petrochemical companies appeal a decision to give a Maryland state court jurisdiction over a major climate change lawsuit.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied a petition submitted by more than two dozen of the world’s major fossil fuel companies and their allies, including the Republican attorneys general of Indiana and 14 other states, to review a decision allowing a case brought by Baltimore, Maryland officials against the companies to be decided in Maryland state court instead of a federal court.
The 2018 public nuisance lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, claiming the companies violated multiple Maryland state laws by concealing for decades the fact that their fossil fuel products would change the climate in ways that would cause property damage and other economic injuries and impact public health.
The city claimed the companies coordinated a multi-front effort to conceal and deny knowledge of climate change threats, discredited publicly available scientific evidence and created doubt within the public about the reality and consequences of fossil fuel pollution in order to manufacture and sell their fossil fuel products.
The city wants the companies to pay for damages caused by fossil fuel-related climate change , civil penalties for violation of state law, punitive damages and to give up any profits the company has made as a result of their alleged wrongful conduct.
“Instead of working to reduce the use and combustion of fossil fuel products, lower the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, minimize the damage associated with continued high use and combustion of such products and ease the transition to a lower carbon economy, Defendants concealed the dangers, sought to undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation and engaged in massive campaigns to promote the ever-increasing use of their products at ever greater volumes,” the officials claim in the lawsuit. “Thus, each Defendant’s conduct has contributed substantially to the buildup of CO2 in the environment that drives global warming and its physical, environmental and socioeconomic consequences.”
The case was moved to federal court after the companies argued that the case presented “uniquely federal interests” governed by federal law. Fourth Circuit Judge Ellen Hollander in 2019 ruled the case was not properly removed to federal court and sent the lawsuit back to Maryland state court.
The decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in January 2021 vacated Hollander’s decision but sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit.
In January 2022, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit heard an appeal on the decision to remove the case to state court. The panel upheld the decision.
On May 12, the attorneys general filed their brief asking the court for a review of the decision involving all 17 judges of the Fourth Circuit.
Rokita argued that the decision, if not rescinded, would set a “dangerous precedent.”
“No one state has the right to set policy in another state. By pushing this case back to state court, these federal judges are establishing a dangerous precedent,” Rokita said in a statement. “This issue affects more than just Maryland — it affects all of us across the country. Hoosiers’ concerns and values are my first priority, and I refuse to allow Maryland’s state court to dictate how we do things here in Indiana.”
The court denied the petition May 17, allowing the lawsuit to return to state court.
The decision could determine if similar cases would be tried in state court, potentially opening the door for future lawsuits from cities seeking to recoup costly climate change mitigation efforts.
Other cities, like Oakland, Calif., New York, N.Y., Annapolis, Md., Charleston, S.C., Honolulu, Hawaii, and the states of Minnesota, Delaware and Rhode Island have filed similar suits.
Local climate change lawsuits could become more important to hold polluters accountable if other climate change-related cases supported by Rokita are successful in limiting the federal government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.
In 2021, Rokita joined the Republican attorneys general of 11 other states in filing suit against the Biden administration over an executive order that reintroduced a Bush-era method of calculating the social cost of greenhouse gases in cost-benefit analyses.
A federal judge in Louisiana issued an injunction in February blocking the administration from using the calculation in analyses of federal actions, but a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed the decision.
Rokita also joined the attorneys general of 18 other fossil fuel-dependent states in filing a petition asking the Supreme Court to review the limits of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions related to climate change.
The majority conservative court could shift the power of environmental regulation away from the EPA and other federal agencies and towards the often-gridlocked Congress.
The decision on that case could come as early as next week.