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Climate Campaigners Welcome SCOTUS Refusal to Hear Big Oil’s Appeal of California Lawsuits

Forward on Climate Rally (Photo: Ben Schumin | Flickr)

By Brett Wilkins | Common Dreams

Climate campaigners on Monday welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear an appeal by oil and gas companies including BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil seeking to shift a lawsuit from state to federal court, a move that means litigation filed by states and cities against fossil fuel corporations will continue to play out in lower courts.

“Appeals courts have overwhelmingly agreed that climate liability lawsuits filed in state courts belong in state courts.” —Richard Wiles, Center for Climate Integrity

The decision represents “a blow to Big Oil’s efforts to escape accountability,” tweeted the Center for Climate Integrity.

The justices denied a writ of certiorari in Chevron v. Oakland, the oil giant’s response to landmark lawsuits by numerous California counties and cities alleging fossil fuel companies including Chevron, Exxon, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Shell are responsible for subjecting their residents to adverse effects of climate change, including sea-level rise, flooding, wildfires, heatwaves, and extreme weather events.

“Big Oil and Gas companies keep trying to evade responsibility for their role in the climate crisis so they can stick taxpayers with the bill for the massive damages their products cause,” Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, said in a statement welcoming the decision. “Appeals courts have overwhelmingly agreed that climate liability lawsuits filed in state courts belong in state courts.”

Furthermore, the plaintiffs accused fossil fuel corporations of waging a decades-long campaign of denial and deception about the harms some of them knew for decades that their products caused.

The oil companies wanted the case moved from state to federal court where, according to Bloomberg Law, they tend to secure more favorable outcomes.

The Bay Area cities of Oakland and San Francisco in 2017 were the first U.S. municipalities to sue Big Oil seeking to hold fossil fuel polluters accountable for driving the climate emergency. Since then, at least 26 state and local governments have filed similar lawsuits against fossil fuel corporations, according to the Center for Climate Integrity, which filed amicus briefs in some of the cases.

In May 2020, a panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in two separate rulings overturned a federal district court’s ruling dismissing the Oakland and San Francisco lawsuits, sending the cases back to lower courts for further consideration. The panel also ruled that day that climate damage lawsuits filed by half a dozen other California counties and cities should continue in state courts.

“The Supreme Court did the right thing by letting the Ninth Circuit’s ruling stand,” Wiles said. “Oakland, San Francisco, and the more than 20 other states and communities seeking to hold Big Oil accountable deserve their day in court.”


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Tribes and Climate Activists Celebrate Court-Ordered Shutdown of Dakota Access Pipeline

Thousands gathered at the San Francisco Civic Center in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline on Nov. 15, 2016. (Photo: Peg Hunter/Flickr/cc) 

By Jessica Corbett | Common Dreams

A U.S. district court on Monday delivered a major win to local Indigenous organizers and climate activists—and a significant blow to the fossil fuel industry and the Trump administration—by ordering the Dakota Access Pipeline to be shut down and emptied of oil by Aug. 5 while federal regulators conduct an environmental review of the project.

“Today is a historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the many people who have supported us in the fight against the pipeline.”
—Mike Faith, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

DAPL, as the Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) pipeline is widely known, transports crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale basin to a terminal in Illinois. The pipeline has gained international notoriety in recent years due to protests—particularly on and around the Standing Rock Indian Reservation—by environmentalists and Native Americans who live along the route.

The Monday decision by D.C.-based District Judge James E. Boasberg comes after four years of litigation brought by the Standing Rock Sioux, Cheyenne River Sioux, and others against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for allowing ETP to construct and operate the pipeline beneath Lake Oahe, a dammed portion of the Missouri River near the reservation.

The Obama administration denied permits for DAPL to cross the river in December 2016, but President Donald Trump signed an executive order advancing the project shortly after taking office in January 2017. The pipeline was completed and operating within months.

Boasberg’s move to shut down DAPL was welcomed by critics of the pipeline.

“Today is a historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the many people who have supported us in the fight against the pipeline,” chairman Mike Faith of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said in a statement. “This pipeline should have never been built here. We told them that from the beginning.”

“It took four long years, but today justice has been served at Standing Rock,” added Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, who represents the tribe. “If the events of 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that health and justice must be prioritized early on in any decision-making process if we want to avoid a crisis later on.”

In a separate statement, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) delcared, “We are celebrating this order as it vindicates the many prayers, actions, and legal arguments of Oceti Sakowin tribal nations and communities!”

“The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes have shown the world that treaty rights and environmental justice are not token concepts without merit, but rather tangible arguments that inherently protect the sacredness of mother earth,” IEN said. “We will continue to fight until DAPL is stopped completely ”

Boasberg’s order Monday followed his finding in March that the Corps had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when approving federal permits for DAPL. The Corps is expected to finish it full court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the pipeline by mid-2021.

The decision to temporarily shut down DAPL came just a day after two energy companies cancelled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) that would have transported fracked gas through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina—a move that activists called a “historic victory for clean water, the climate, public health, and our communities.”

“These monumental defeats for the fossil fuel industry are a clear sign that bold community opposition, strategic legal challenges and state-level clean energy legislation are all working together to thwart the Trump administration’s pro-polluter agenda,” Food & Water Action policy director Mitch Jones said in a statement Monday, referencing both the DAPL decision and the ACP cancellation.

“The campaign to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, led by Indigenous groups whose water would have been directly impacted by that filthy project, inspired and emboldened climate activists across the country,” Jones continued. “The Trump White House can boast and bluster all it wants, and corporate behemoths can scheme to take advantage of the administration’s fondness for fossil fuels, but they are no match for determined grassroots opposition movements fighting for environmental justice and an end to the degradation of our air, water and climate.”

“Today’s ruling—arriving on the heels of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline victory—may be a calamity for oil and gas executives looking to profit from the disastrous climate crisis, but it’s a huge win for those of us committed to a liveable world.”
—Janet Redman, Greenpeace USA

“Fossil fuels are dying,” he added, “and there is little that Donald Trump can do to save them.”

Greenpeace USA climate director Janet Redman called the DAPL shutdown a “huge victory for the courageous members” of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and allied activists “who fought to protect their land, their water, and their right to a healthy and safe future.”

“This is as much a victory for human rights and Indigenous sovereignty as it is for the climate,” Redman said in a statement Monday before also connecting the two wins.

“Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access Pipeline and other environmentally reckless fossil fuel infrastructure projects will only make billionaires richer while the rest of us suffer,” Redman said. “Today’s ruling—arriving on the heels of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline victory—may be a calamity for oil and gas executives looking to profit from the disastrous climate crisis, but it’s a huge win for those of us committed to a liveable world. A just transition to renewable energy is not only the future, it is the only responsible choice for today.”

“The past 24 hours,” she added, “have sent a loud and clear message to fossil fuel corporations still committed to constructing dangerous pipelines—the future does not belong to you.”

This post has been updated with comment from Indigenous Environmental Network and Greenpeace USA.

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‘No Time Left for Business as Usual’: Climate Activists Plan Day of Mass Civil Disobedience to #ShutDownDC

By Jake Johnson | Common Dreams

Environmental activists are hoping to bring Washington, D.C. to a “gridlocked standstill” next month with a massive act of civil disobedience aimed at disrupting business as usual and getting the attention of members of Congress standing in the way of bold climate action.

The #ShutDownDC day of action, scheduled for Sept. 23, is expected to include blockades at key intersections throughout the U.S. capital, according to a press release from the coalition of advocacy groups that organized the protest.

“The severity of the issue and the complete lack of response from elected officials necessitates mass civil disobedience,” Kathleen Brophy, an organizer with 350.org, said in a statement.

The civil disobedience is expected to come during a week of youth-led global climate strikes, which are set to begin Sept. 20 and continue through Sept. 27.

Sean Haskett of the youth-led Sunrise Movement told The Guardian on Wednesday that the goal of the #ShutDownDC action is to “disrupt the workings of power.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of power that drives through those streets and parks next to those sidewalks and walks into those buildings,” said Haskett. “We want them to think about what they’re doing with that power.”

The coalition behind the protest—which includes prominent organizations such as Extinction Rebellion D.C., Movement for a People’s Party, and CodePink—acknowledged the blockades will likely “cause massive disruption to people who bear little responsibility for the climate catastrophe we are facing.”

“But we will also cause massive disruption for politicians, huge corporations, and the lobbyists who control our government,” the groups said on the website for the action. “We need to fundamentally change the power structure of the United States if we want to stop the climate crisis, and shutting down D.C. is a big step in the right direction.”

According to organizers, the D.C. action will mark the beginning of an “international wave of citywide climate shutdowns” in major cities across the world, including London, Paris, and Berlin.

“There’s no time left for business as usual; the climate crisis is here,” the D.C. coalition said. “This is the mass uprising that everyone with climate anxiety has been waiting for. This is an uprising for life itself, fighting back against the forces of destruction.”

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Study Finds Holding Governments and Corporations Legally Accountable for Climate Crisis ‘Has Become a Global Phenomenon’

Youth climate activists attend the Minnesota March for Science held in St. Paul in April 2017. (Photo: Lorie Shaull/Flickr/cc)

By Jessica Corbett | Common Dreams

An analysis published Thursday details how lawsuits that aim to push governments to more ambitiously the address climate emergency and make polluting corporations pay for the damage caused by their sizable contributions to the global warming are growing in popularity around the world.

“The number of countries in which people are taking climate change court action is likely to continue to rise.”
—Joana Setzer, report co-author

The new report from the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science—entitled Global Trends in Climate Change Litigation: 2019 Snapshot (pdf)—focuses on the 1,328 legal actions related to the climate crisis filed between 1990 and May of this year, with cases launched in more than two dozen countries.

The suits have been brought by citizens, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and local governments.

Summarizing the study’s findings, report co-author Joana Setzer said in a statement that “holding government and businesses to account for failing to combat climate change has become a global phenomenon.”

“People and environmental groups are forcing governments and companies into court for failing to act on climate change, and not just in the United States,” said Setzer. “Now the number of countries in which people are taking climate change court action is likely to continue to rise.”

Though the United States accounts for the large majority of the cases—1,023, according to the report—multiple lawsuits also have been filed in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Researchers also noted cases brought to the European Union, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, and the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

Among the key findings from the analysis:

  • Climate change litigation continues to expand across jurisdictions as a tool to strengthen climate action, though more evidence of its impact is needed;
  • Climate change cases have been brought in at least 28 countries around the world, and of the recorded cases more than three quarters have been filed in the United States;
  • Most defendants are governments but lawsuits are increasingly targeting the highest greenhouse-gas-emitting companies;
  • Climate change-related claims are also being pursued by investors, activist shareholders, cities, and states; and
  • Climate change litigation in low- and middle-income countries is growing in quantity and importance.

The report spotlights some high-profile lawsuits, such as Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands, “the first case to argue successfully for the adoption of stricter emissions reduction targets by a government.”

Another landmark case that has garnered global attention is Juliana v. the United States, which was heard in June before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Oregon. “Youth plaintiffs assert that the government’s actions that cause climate change violate their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property,” the report explains. “At the time of writing the judges were yet to decide if the case should continue to trial and if the federal government should halt new fossil fuel extraction projects while the court decides the case. The consequences could impact far beyond this suit.”

Analyzing the outcomes of litigation within the United States, researchers found a shift that aligns with when U.S. President Donald Trump took office—and promptly began attempting to roll back his predecessors’ climate and environmental policies, which campaigners and scientists sometimes considered inadequate in the long term but still steps in the right direction.

From 1990 to 2016, based on available data from 873 lawsuits, U.S. litigation more often hindered climate policy than favored it, according to the report. However, of the 154 climate lawsuits filed in the first two years of the Trump administration, there were more “favorable” climate cases than “hindering,” with a ratio of about 4:1. The report acknowledges that many of the cases from 2017 and 2018 are ongoing.

“Outside the United States, 43 percent of the 305 cases brought between 1994 and May 2019 have led to an outcome that is considered favorable to advancing climate change efforts,” the report says, “while 27 percent of cases analyzed have hindered climate change efforts.”

The report also highlights the emerging trend of lawsuits from front-line communities seeking money from polluters to cover the costs of adapting to the warming world.

In the past year, a spate of public nuisance suits against fossil fuel companies has sought damages potentially amounting to billions of dollars to cover the costs of adaptation (e.g. the cost of infrastructure to protect against sea level rise and other physical impacts of climate change). These lawsuits are also novel in that they were brought by U.S. state governments and municipalities such as the State of Rhode Island, and the cities of New YorkSan Francisco, and Oakland, rather than citizens or NGOs. The plaintiffs allege that fossil fuel companies continued to produce fossil fuels while knowingly concealing climate risks.

Though many of the court battles haven’t yet been settled, the report seems to serve as a warning to fossil fuel giants. As Setzer put it, “until recently businesses might not have considered a climate change lawsuit to be a risk, but this is something all corporations should now be taking into account.”

More broadly, Setzer said that “litigation is clearly an important part of the armory for those seeking to tackle climate change.”

“Court cases contribute to greater awareness of climate change issues and can force changes in behavior that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she added. “It remains an expensive and potentially risky option, though, if compared to other routes like policy-making.”

Setzer hosted a panel discussion on courts and climate justice at a Thursday event held as part of London Climate Action Week. Watch:

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