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Analysis: Climate change lawsuit is meritless chicanery – ‘Can only unleash an economic Frankenstein monster upon our communities’

By Craig Richardson

With little legal precedent to support his decision, Chief Judge William Smith of the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island remanded a politically driven climate change lawsuit case back to state court, effectively allowing the baseless claim that a few companies are solely responsible for all of the Earth’s climate change to be adjudicated at the state level.

In handing down this decision — which will most assuredly be overturned — Smith has ruled that immensely complicated, multinational issues surrounding Earth’s climate change may now be decided in state courthouses, using local “nuisance ordinances” to potentially impose massive fines on just a handful of American energy companies. This is an obvious shakedown effort by the Greens and their political and financial benefactors who brought these frivolous suits in the first place.

Unfortunately, two other federal judges have joined Smith in allowing these cases to remain at the state court level. Judge Ellen Hollander ruled that a case filed by the city of Baltimore should stay in state court. Similarly, Judge Vince Chhabria ruled that a suit by a few cities and counties in California belong in state court.

These rulings ignore precedent set by other federal courts as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, which have ruled against attempts to have climate-related issues adjudicated at the state level, saying an issue as complex and far-reaching as global climate change cannot be arbitrated by individual state courts.

Judge Smith ignored his own state’s Supreme Court decision 11 years ago in which the court unanimously rejected a similar public nuisance suit filed against three former lead paint manufacturers. Additionally, a virtually identical climate case was tossed out just last year by Judge John F. Keenan of the U.S. District Court in New York City, who correctly ruled that local nuisance ordinances cannot ever be used to impose fines or extract punishments from companies regarding an issue as vast as climate change.

Last year, a judge in San Francisco’s 9th Circuit Court appropriately tossed out a lawsuit brought by the cities of Oakland and San Francisco politicians, who launched a lawsuit seeking unspecified billions of dollars in fines from oil and gas companies, including BP, Chevron, Conoco Phillips and ExxonMobil. As the judge observed, the alleged damage “hasn’t happened yet and may never happen to the extent you’re predicting it will happen.”

While a few judges have ruled to keep these cases in state courts, other courts — even those in California and New York — have correctly ruled that matters of climate change fall under the jurisdiction of the executive and legislative branches of our government, not a collection of state courts and hodgepodge of judges.

Sadly now, emboldened by Smith’s flawed decision, Oakland, San Francisco and other cash-strapped local municipalities are demanding a do-over of their failed attempts to bilk energy producers — and ultimately consumers who will foot the bill — for their own municipal mismanagement, all under the pretense of protecting the Earth’s environment. But no matter how hard politicians in these cities attempt to shake down a few energy companies in the name of saving the planet, they will see their unsupported arguments tossed out of court.

Mayors who support such litigation also ignore how their own municipalities rely on fossil fuels for city-run airports, port facilities, bus terminals and city-sponsored industry. If a handful of energy producers are supposedly responsible for an entire planet’s worth of climate change, aren’t the cities that pump thousands of tons of carbon into the atmosphere also responsible?

Such epic hypocrisy exposes the blatant legal chicanery of these politicians and their deceitful attempts to backfill their cash-strapped municipal budgets with big checks from oil and natural gas producers. In reality, small-business owners and consumers would eventually bear the costs of tens of billions of dollars in fines imposed on the energy industry.

Ultimately, this litigation would do nothing to change the Earth’s climate or climate policy and can only unleash an economic Frankenstein monster upon our communities. It’s imperative that serious-minded judges adhere to the rule of law and dismiss these meritless lawsuits to protect the American people from such deeply dishonest climate change racketeering.

Craig Richardson is the president of the Energy & Environment Legal Institute. He wrote this for