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U.S. Supreme Court will decide soon whether to hear appeal by big oil over Minnesota’s climate change lawsuit

In its lawsuit filed in state court, Minnesota’s attorney general alleges that the nation’s oil and natural gas industry have caused a “climate-change crisis” through a “campaign of deception.” The companies named in the lawsuit say the suit belongs in federal court.

Exxon gas station
Minnesota sued the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil and three Koch-owned companies to force them to pay for the effects of climate change on Minnesotans.
Photo by Kyle Mazza/NurPhoto

WASHINGTON — In what could be a landmark case, Minnesota sued the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil and three Koch-owned companies to force them to pay for the effects of climate change on Minnesotans.

But the lawsuit filed by Attorney General Keith Ellison in state court in June of 2020 has been subject to battles over a jurisdictional issue — whether the case based on the state’s consumer protection laws belongs in a state court, or whether it belongs in federal court where it could be easier to dismiss. 

Now the U.S. Supreme Court, which began its new term last week, will consider hearing an appeal by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the other petitioners who seek to move the case to federal court.

The oil companies argued that damage lawsuits for climate change go beyond the limits of state law and are governed by federal law — but there is no federal common law for greenhouse gases.

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Minnesota argues the lawsuit belongs in state court. In its lawsuit, the state alleges that the nation’s oil and natural gas industry have caused a “climate-change crisis” through a “campaign of deception.” The state says experts in the field of climate change at oil companies were issuing warnings to company executives about what was coming. But rather than warn the public, the companies continued to reject all arguments that carbon emissions caused by their products were contributing to climate change.

The lawsuit also says that during this period, Mobil and Koch earned hundreds of billions of dollars in profits while Minnesota shouldered the costs and consequences of “unmitigated climate change.” It asks for the courts to mandate those profits be used to help Minnesota pay for what it says are the “devastating consequences” of climate change. 

“Holding these companies accountable for the climate deception they’ve spread and continue to spread is essential to helping families to afford their lives and live with dignity and respect,” Ellison said when he filed the lawsuit. “It’s only fair that, as our complaint states, ‘the parties who have profited from avoiding the consequences and costs of dealing with global warming and its physical, environmental, social, and economic consequences, bear the costs of those impacts, rather than Minnesota taxpayers, residents, or broader segments of the public.’”

The attorney general’s office declined to comment about the oil companies’ appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court because the state has not yet filed a response. The court has given Minnesota until Oct. 23 to do so.

API and the other companies sued by the state lost a bid in U.S. District Court to stay the case pending the outcome of similar cases in federal court. They also lost an appeal to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court.  So, the oil industry has turned to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In its appeal it told the high court that the issue “has only become more pressing” because “similar cases will continue to proliferate, and similar claims could be brought against members of any number of industries that plaintiffs believe have contributed to climate change.”

API declined a request for an interview. But it did provide a statement from its general counsel, Ryan Meyers:

The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint,” Meyers’ statement said. “This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of Minnesota taxpayer resources. Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not the court system.”

There are about 20 cases filed by cities and states — including California — suing the oil industry over the effects of climate change. 

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There may be some good news for Minnesota’s attorney general. In its last session, the Supreme Court declined to hear challenges to climate cases from Hawaii, Colorado, Rhode Island, Baltimore, Maryland, and San Mateo County, California, that were all seeking to have the cases moved to federal court. 

Efforts to have the nation’s petroleum industry pay for the increasingly costly effects of climate change is a priority for environmental groups and many Native tribes.

“It is positive to see Attorney General Ellison staying the course to hold ExxonMobil, American Petroleum Institute, and Koch Industries accountable for methodically lying to the public about fossil fuels causing climate catastrophe,” said Krystal Two Bulls, executive director of Honor the Earth, a Native environmental group. “But no amount of money can restore what has been lost, or undo this era of chaos for life on Mother Earth.”

Two Bulls, who is Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, also said “a victory for Minnesota in court will only translate to a win for Native Americans and Indigenous sovereignty if it also sheds light on the systems of racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy that have enabled the fossil fuel cartel to dominate, and doesn’t simply shift public opinion toward new lies, such as ‘green mining’ on Indigenous lands for polluting ‘renewables.’”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Krystal Two Bulls is executive director rather than co-executive director of Honor the Earth.