Just last week, I highlighted the enormous stakes of the Justice Department’s long-anticipated filing in a climate liability case brought by Boulder County, Colorado against fossil fuel companies Suncor Energy and ExxonMobil seeking damages for their campaign of corporate deception.
In February of 2022, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case should proceed in state court. The Supreme Court is currently considering whether to grant the oil and gas companies’ appeal of the Tenth Circuit’s decision. This is the companies’ latest maneuver in a years-long campaign of procedural obstruction in this and dozens of similar cases brought by states and municipalities around the country. The Supreme Court asked the Justice Department in October to state its position in this case.
Yesterday, the Justice Department finally offered its answer. It argued that the Supreme Court should deny the fossil fuel companies’ petition for review, reversing the position it had taken under Trump in related cases brought by Rhode Island, New York City, Baltimore, Oakland and San Francisco. This marks a crucial step towards clearing the way for Boulder’s case, along with dozens of similar cases from Hoboken to Honolulu, to proceed on the merits. There are potentially billions of dollars in penalties at stake that cities and states could put towards mitigating local damages and adapting to the changing climate. For more background on these cases, I covered them for Washington Monthly last August.
Last week, I wrote that this case was a major test for de-Trumpification at the Department of Justice. We are gratified to see that the DOJ has passed this test, after two years of conspicuous silence on whether it would let its Trump-era record stand. There are many more cases in which we’d like to see the Justice Department course correct from its track record under Trump; cases which we continue to document in our long-running litigation tracker.
We hope this filing marks the beginning, and not the end, of a decisive pivot for Merrick Garland’s Justice Department towards seeking accountability for the fossil fuel corporations that undermine the health of the public and the habitability of the planet in their single-minded pursuit of profit.
As my colleague Fatou Ndiaye and I wrote last spring for our Corporate Crackdown report series on the Justice Department’s tools to fight climate change, “Filing motions to intervene, amicus briefs, and statements of interest are all tools at the Department of Justice’s disposal to lend strategic support to forward-looking climate lawsuits against fossil fuel corporations in state and district courts. There is, however, an even more impressive option: the Department of Justice commencing its own investigations into the fossil fuel industry’s fraud, negligence, and violations of constitutional rights and the public trust doctrine.”
Image: “Fourmile canyon burn area” of wildfire damage in Boulder County, Colorado is in the public domain.