Climate Change Lawsuits Brought by Coastal Municipalities and States Against the Fossil Fuel Industry: Trends in Climate Change Litigation, Part 3
In the third installment of Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer's discussion of emerging trends in Climate Change Litigation, we are discussing a quickly proliferating form of litigation—lawsuits filed by U.S. states and municipalities against companies that operate in industry sectors which have historically had high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
At present, the most common target for this litigation in the United States has been the oil and gas industry. In these cases, plaintiff cities or states will often bring suit against a large number of oil and gas companies as members of the collective industry. These claims are usually brought in state court, where the plaintiffs can take advantage of potentially favorable state common law. Using this strategy, plaintiffs have asserted claims against the fossil-fuel industry under state law theories such as nuisance, failure to warn of the known impacts of climate change, and unjust enrichment. Of course, as a counter to this strategy and in hopes of demonstrating preemption under the Clean Air Act, defendants will often look to remove climate change cases to federal court.
In order to satisfy Article III Standing requirements, Plaintiffs in these cases have generally been coastal communities which allege that they have suffered harm or are uniquely at risk of suffering harm from rising sea levels as a result of climate change.
Several examples of this ongoing litigation includes:
- County of San Mateo v. Chevron Corp. et al. (2018): claims brought by six California municipalities and counties against 37 fossil-fuel companies in California state court. The plaintiffs, alleging they will be damaged by the effects of climate change, brought a variety of claims under state common law including nuisance, negligence, failure to warn, and trespass. Following defendants’ removal of the case to federal court, plaintiffs successfully remanded back to state court on the grounds that their claims did not implicate a federal question or raise preemption issues. Defendants have filed an interlocutory appeal in the Ninth Circuit which is currently being briefed by the parties.
- City of Oakland v. BP p.l.c. et al. (2018): claims brought by the City of Oakland and San Francisco against fossil-fuel companies under California common and statutory law. Plaintiffs asserted that the industry’s GHG emissions amounted to a “public nuisance” under California law. However, unlike San Mateo, the defendants in City of Oakland were able to successfully remove and ultimately retain the matter in federal court. The Northern District of California court denied plaintiff’s motion to remand the case back to state court based on its finding that federal common law necessarily governed the nuisance claims. The district court subsequently dismissed the suits on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims raised a “Political Question” best addressed by the legislature as opposed to judicial branch. This dismissal has also been appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
- Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp. et al. (2018): The first such case to be brought by a U.S. State, Rhode Island asserted claims for nuisance, strict liability, failure to warn, design defect, trespass, impairment of public trust resources, and violations of the Environmental Rights Act against 21 fossil-fuel companies. Rhode Island’s lawsuit asserts that the state’s extensive coastline will be damaged through rising sea levels, increased frequency and severity of flooding, extreme precipitation events, and ocean warming and acidification. Defendants have removed the case to federal court, and the parties are currently briefing Rhode Island’s attempt to remand the case back to state court.
Exploring the E-Suite with Joel Brammeier, President and CEO, Alliance for the Great Lakes
- Tell us about Alliance for Great Lakes, including what the organization does and your role.
The Alliance drives the local, state and federal policy reforms and implementation necessary to create a healthy Great Lakes for all people and wildlife, forever. We do this by communicating our thought leadership on issues, building powerful networks of influencers, and educating and activating tens of thousands of volunteers, advocates and donors each year who bring their voices to our priorities.
As President and CEO of the Alliance, I concentrate on three principal responsibilities. The first is making sure that the Alliance is focused on the most significant issues affecting clean water in the Great Lakes. That involves a lot of listening, reading, and prioritizing our work. Second, I focus on the financial viability of the Alliance. Fundraising is is my time to listen to what is important to our supporters and communicate to them how their investment in clean water is impacting the Great Lakes. Finally, I work to support the core components of the Alliance—our staff, our volunteers, and the Board of Directors. Everyone needs to be fully engaged, informed, and moving forward to advance the Alliance’s mission.
- What is your professional background that you led you to become involved in policy issues concerning protection of fresh water assets and related environmental issues?
After undergrad at Valparaiso University and grad school at University of Michigan, I moved to Chicago in the late 1990s to follow the person who eventually became my spouse. At that time, I began volunteering with a number of NGOs in the Chicago area in order to build my network of relationships and assess how I could become professionally involved. I carried a deep values commitment to non-profit service, mostly due to observing the work of my parents as a teacher and member of the clergy. I had decided on focusing on environmental work in high school after a variety of positive outdoor experiences with my family. After about a year volunteering in various capacities in Chicago, an entry-level position opened up with a group called the Lake Michigan Federation. The combination of my personal value for the Great Lakes that was imprinted on me in childhood, along with my expertise from my education and volunteering, was enough to get me the job. Since that time, I have advanced through the growth and expansion of the organization to become the president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
- What do you think are the emerging policy issues regarding fresh water assets and the environment of the Great Lakes and how do you think they should be addressed?
It is still all about clean water, but in a much more inclusive and equitable way than is traditional for the mainstream environmental movement. The greatest emerging challenge is how to ensure Great Lakes water is protected and restored in a way that matters personally to all the people of the Great Lakes. For example, drinking water protection is commonly a top reason the public cites as a reason to protect the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Water Resources Compact & Agreement is a monumental agreement among the states and provinces to ensure water is not diverted to far-flung locations, and that the natural hydrology of the lakes is protected. But this policy doesn’t ensure people can actually access safe, clean and affordable drinking water. It is not credible to say a large natural source of drinking water is truly protected if millions of people who rely on that water cannot safely or reliably use it. And this is today’s unfortunate reality, from manure contamination in northeast Wisconsin, to toxic algae in Lake Erie, to lead and PFAS contamination across the region. Often those harms are falling on people who are already suffering an outsize burden in other parts of their lives.
On specific issues, I think the greatest challenges are 1) changing how we grow food so the agricultural economy does not pollute our water 2) restoring the vital water infrastructure that is the basis of people’s health and the Great Lakes regional economy and 3) preventing the continued influx of invasive species that threaten to torpedo our way of life. Solving these challenges depends on a broad and engaged public that is motivated to action to protect the Great Lakes.
- What do you enjoy most about your work at the Alliance for the Great Lakes?
The people I work with, the ability to protect something that is personally important to me and the fact that clean water for all people and wildlife is a hard cause to argue against.
- What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your work?
Environmental advocacy works on big problems with many deeply embedded interests and motivations. Changing that system takes time and can be frustrating. The flip side of that is when you are successful, you are changing a system in a lasting way and you know it will benefit people now and well into the future.
- What or who helped you succeed as a policy maker and advocate?
I’m not the kind of person who needs or wants to be in the spotlight taking credit, I just want to work smart and get the result I’m looking for. I’ve relied on so many people because this work is by nature collaborative and I would miss many if I named names. But I will mention one. Cameron Davis, who is now a commissioner at Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, gave me my first real shot at being an environmental professional. I’m sure I screwed up plenty while working for him, but he still let me follow him around and listen to him for years. This was fundamental to me learning how environmental policy change happens. I’m truly thankful for that time. I’ve had five Board of Directors chairs in my time leading the Alliance, without whom I never would have been able to figure out how to run an organization. School does not train you for that and board leadership is vital. The Alliance is fortunate to have a large and diverse base of financial supporters, and I reflect constantly on my obligation to them to make sure our work is addressing their desire for clean and safe water.
- Describe those projects as an environmental policy advocate of which you are the proudest.
I’ve done some transformative work in invasive species prevention where I can look back at policies and decisions by elected officials and know that I was one of the people at the center of making those things happen. If you get to be part of one thing like that in a lifetime, it’s pretty great. I’ve been a core part of, though definitely not the leader, of a successful movement to make the Great Lakes a national priority in the United States. I’m also quite proud of dramatically expanding the reach of my organization and becoming a leader in engaging people in advocacy, as public support is critical for success.
- What advice would you give a young person today who is considering starting out in your field?
Looking back, I realize today that I received a privileged opportunity when I joined the Lake Michigan Federation. It was a relatively small group rebounding from a tough time in the right way, and I was fortunate to get that job. Today, the green & blue movement is pervasive in our economy and culture in a way that just did not exist twenty years ago. Young professionals can and should seek out careers with environmental organizations, but also remember that there are opportunities to shape systems change throughout the private sector. They should ask their future bosses to communicate their personal vision for change. Look for somewhere in your work where you can take the lead on at least one thing that is important to you and your career. Listen to understand how environmental choices affect the daily lives of people and build your work around that knowledge. And consider spending some time in politics early on – understanding what motivates our decision makers is absolutely critical to devising strategies to make sure the right decisions are made.
In the second installation of Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer's discussion of emerging trends in Climate Change Litigation, we are highlighting recent investigations brought by US state attorneys general against private companies for allegedly misleading the public and/or company shareholders regarding the potential climate impacts of their operations.
In recent years, several major state investigations were launched following investigative journalism reports of private companies’ failures to disclose the causes and effects of climate change. One such example is the Los Angeles Times 2015 exposé into Exxon Mobil Corp.’s historic in-house research on climate change.
Approximately one month after the publication of the Los Angeles Times’ article, the New York Attorney General subpoenaed Exxon, seeking documents related to the company’s research on the causes and effects of climate change; the integration of its research findings into business decisions; and the company's disclosures of this information to shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The attorney general’s investigation was grounded in New York's shareholder-protection statute, the Martin Act, as well as New York’s consumer protection and general business laws.
In 2016, New York’s investigation was publically supported by a coalition of top state enforcement officials from Vermont, Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, and the Virgin Islands, all of which agreed to share information and strategies in similar climate change investigations and future litigation. Exxon responded by filing its own lawsuit seeking to block New York and Massachusetts’ investigations.
After a three-year contentious investigation, the New York Attorney General's office sued Exxon on October 24, 2018, alleging that Exxon engaged in “a longstanding fraudulent scheme” to deceive investors by providing false and misleading information about the financial risks the company faced from its contributions to climate change.
Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer will continue to update on this matter, as well as other important climate change litigation cases, as they unfold.
On Tuesday, April 16th, from 12:00 - 1:00 pm CST, Jenner & Block is hosting an interactive webinar that will discuss how environmental claims can arise in many different contexts and how high costs can be avoided. One way to manage the cost of environmental claims associated with historical operations is to pursue coverage under historical (and often pre-pollution exclusion) occurrence-based commercial general liability insurance policies. Our panelists will discuss the nuances and pitfalls that can arise in environmental insurance litigation and creative strategies to maximize recovery. In addition, companies facing environmental risks in their current operations or transactions can also manage environmental risk through a variety of current insurance products. Our panelists will identify current options available to manage environmental risks going forward and provide insight into the costs and benefits of those insurance products.
Jenner & Block Partners Allison Torrence and Brian Scarbrough will be panelists, along with Richard Reich, Managing Director at Aon Risk Services Central, Inc. Jenner & Block Associate Alex Bandza will moderate the webinar.
Please click here to RSVP for this webinar.
New Jersey continues to take an aggressive stance with respect to per- and polyfluoralkyl (PFAS) contamination. On March 25, 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) issued a “Statewide PFAS Directive Information Request and Notice to Insurers” to five major chemical companies notifying those companies that NJDEP believed them to be responsible for PFAS impacts to the air and waters of New Jersey. In addition to seeking recovery from these companies for past costs incurred by NJDEP to investigate and remediate PFAS impacts, the Directive also seeks to compel these companies to assume responsibility for ongoing remediation of drinking water systems throughout the state. The Directive further seeks information from these companies regarding historical PFAS manufacturing practices as well as information regarding these companies’ ongoing efforts to manufacture PFAS replacement chemicals.
Although environmental organizations have been quick to praise the NJDEP Directive, in reality, the state agency may have overstepped its authority. NJDEP has been quick to point out that the Directive is not a final agency action, formal enforcement order, or other final legal determination and therefore cannot be appealed or contested. Notwithstanding NJDEP’s efforts to insulate its Directive from immediate legal challenge, it will almost certainly draw strong industry challenges. For example, NJDEP’s efforts to obtain information regarding PFAS replacement chemicals may run afoul of the Toxic Substances Control Act and its efforts to compel reimbursement of past claims and/or the takeover of ongoing remedial actions will certainly be the subject of court challenges.
Continuing its full court PFAS press, on April 1, 2019, New Jersey unveiled a proposed drinking water standard of 14 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS. These proposed drinking water levels are significantly lower than the current U.S. EPA health advisory level of 70 ppt for combined PFOS/PFOA.
The term “climate change litigation” has become a shorthand for a wide range of different legal proceedings associated with addressing the environmental impacts of climate change. Plaintiffs in climate change lawsuits may include individuals, non-governmental organizations, private companies, state or local level governments, and even company shareholders who, through various legal theories, allege that they have been harmed or will suffer future harm as a direct result of the world’s changing climate. The targets of climate change litigation have included individual public and private companies, government bodies, and even entire industry groups. While there appears to be no shortage of plaintiffs, defendants, or legal theories emerging in climate change litigation, one clear trend is that the number of these lawsuits has grown dramatically in recent years. By one count, more than fifty climate change suits have been filed in the United States every year since 2009, with over one hundred suits being filed in both 2016 and 2017.
In light of the growing trend of climate change litigation, Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog is starting a periodic blog update which will discuss the emerging trends and key cases in this litigation arena. In each update, our blog will focus on a sub-set of climate change cases and discuss recent decisions on the topic. In Part 1 of this series, we will be discussing Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.