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US Supreme Court to review Baltimore's climate lawsuit against oil companies

The U.S. Supreme Court will review a lower court's ruling that a climate liability lawsuit brought by the city of Baltimore against major fossil fuel companies belongs in state court.

In an Oct. 2 notice, the high court indicated it will consider the appeal of oil and gas companies BP PLC, Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC and several others of a March ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. The notice said Justice Samuel Alito took no part in the decision to take the case.

The issue before the court is the scope of jurisdiction that federal appellate courts have to review all components of a district court's remand orders. Lower courts are divided on this issue, including in a number of other climate liability lawsuits brought by state and local governments against the oil companies.

"The question presented in this case is a frequently recurring one of substantial legal and practical importance," the companies told the Supreme Court.

In the 4th Circuit proceeding, the companies had asked to remove a district court judge's remand decision to the federal district court and listed a number of grounds for removal. But the 4th Circuit found that it only had jurisdiction to consider one of the companies' grounds: the "federal officer removal" statute in which anyone being sued in state court for actions taken under the direction of a federal officer can have their case moved to federal court. The 4th Circuit judges then ruled that the companies had not shown they were acting as "federal officers" when they were extracting and selling their oil and gas products and sent the case back to state court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit made a similar finding in May regarding climate liability lawsuits brought against fossil fuel companies by a number of California cities and counties.

But in 2015 in a case involving a lawsuit against Boeing Co. by a number of airline passengers (Lu Junhong v. Boeing), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled that appellate courts have jurisdiction to consider the entire remand order on review. The fossil fuel companies said two other courts of appeals have followed the 7th Circuit's reasoning in their decisions.

The companies asked the Supreme Court to "hold that appellate review extends to all issues encompassed in a remand order in a case removed in part under the federal-officer or civil-rights removal statutes."

The companies went on to note that the high court could then either proceed to address the remaining grounds for removal, such as the companies' assertion that federal law, not state law, governs claims related to interstate air and water pollution, or the court could vacate the judgment of the 4th Circuit and direct it to address the other remaining grounds for removal that the companies raised.

The Supreme Court case is BP, et al., v. Mayor and City Council Baltimore (19-1189).