Summary List Placement
From coastal cities preparing for sea-level rise to mountain counties in Colorado, states and municipalities are suing big fossil-fuel-energy companies as they brace for the multibillion-dollar costs tied to the climate crisis.
The majority of lawsuits allege that fossil-fuel companies are responsible for the damage caused by the climate crisis and should help pay for it. It’s a series of lawsuits that could have far-reaching consequences, similar to the litigation against tobacco companies that resulted in a $206 billion price tag and widespread reform.
The pace of litigation involving the climate crisis has been ramping up in recent years, with a handful of attorneys leading the charge on the most prominent cases.
In 2017, there were 654 active cases involving the climate crisis in the US. These include a wide variety of litigation, from those seeking damages from fossil-fuel companies to some claims against the government under the Endangered Species Act. By 2020, there were 1,200 cases, according to a recent litigation report from the United Nations Environment Programme and Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
In some of the most high-profile cases, states and cities are suing oil companies, alleging deceptive marketing practices. These cases have largely become mired in procedural issues, with lawyers fighting over whether they should be heard in state or federal courts.
While the specifics vary, the lawsuits are generally about who will have to front the monumental costs associated with the climate crisis.
“People are asking the courts to give them a remedy in light of that reality,” Karen Sokol, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, said. “We haven’t had much climate in the courts, but this is our new reality.”
So far, six attorneys general and more than a dozen of cities and counties have brought lawsuits against fossil-fuel companies. They’ve been aided by a handful of nonprofit organizations and law firms — with the most prominent being San Francisco’s Sher Edling, which is involved in lawsuits from several states and municipalities. The fossil-fuel companies have been represented by Big Law firms including Paul Weiss and Gibson Dunn.
Insider put together a list of the top lawyers leading the fight against big oil companies and governments, according to industry insiders and experts.
Vic Sher and Matt Edling
Vic Sher and Matt Edling, the partners and cofounders of Sher Edling, are leading the way for climate-crisis-accountability lawsuits in the US, according to industry insiders.
The San Francisco lawyers are assisting four attorneys general in lawsuits against fossil-fuel-energy companies and have lent their expertise to nearly a dozen cities and counties.
Many of Sher and Edling’s cases have been delayed by procedural arguments over whether the cases should be heard in federal or state court. Oil companies have been pushing for the cases to be heard in federal court, saying that worldwide emissions should not be litigated in state courts under different state laws.
In January, Sher argued on behalf of the city of Baltimore that the allegations of “fraud, deception, denial, and disinformation” fell under state law and should be heard in state courts.
“From coast to coast, states and communities are suffering the consequences of the fossil fuel industry’s deceit and disinformation, and that’s why they’ve gone to court — to protect their residents, consumers, and taxpayers,” Sher and Edling said in a statement.
Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts came into the spotlight in October 2019, when she filed a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, alleging that the oil and gas company deceived Massachusetts’ investors and consumers about the effects of fossil fuels on the environment and the threat the climate crisis posed to the value of its business.
Healey accused the company of positioning itself as a leader in clean energy with misleading “greenwashing” campaigns to sell its products.
The state’s lawsuit was the first to allege harm to both consumers and investors, a twist in the emerging legal area of climate-emergency litigation. Healey said her goal was to “stop this illegal deception and hold Exxon accountable for its lies.”
Exxon has denied the claims and attempted to get the lawsuit dismissed, though a state judge recently rejected the effort.
Attorney General Keith Ellison of Minnesota sued Exxon, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute in June 2020, alleging a decades-long campaign of fraud and deception. Ellison’s lawsuit said that the effects of the climate crisis would “disproportionately impact people living in poverty and people of color.”
But Minnesota’s lawsuit stands out because it didn’t just target oil and gas companies, according to Sokol, the environmental-law expert. The lawsuit seeks to hold the American Petroleum Institute responsible for its role in climate-crisis messaging over the years. Sokol said API served as “nerve central” that directed a lot of the industry’s work over the past decades.
“They had a duty to warn the public that they knew fossil fuels were harming Minnesota’s economy, infrastructure, and environment, but they lied about it instead, all for the sake of their own profit,” Ellison said in a statement.
The lawsuit is held up by procedural arguments over where it will be heard. The defendants said in court documents the lawsuit was part of a plan by plaintiff’s attorneys, climate activists, and special interests to force a political and regulatory agenda.
Marco Simons, the general counsel for the nonprofit EarthRights International, is helping represent Colorado’s Boulder County, San Miguel County, and the city of Boulder in a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil and Suncor Energy.
The lawsuit, filed in 2018, was the first climate-crisis-accountability suit to be brought by communities not on the coast. These mountain communities — which are also being represented by Niskanen Center and the Hannon Law Firm — face unique challenges because of the climate emergency, including reduced snowpack, which would affect cities’ water supply, and droughts.
Simons, who has worked on other climate-related lawsuits, said these cases were not about regulating emissions moving forward, which would fall on policymakers. But he said the courts did have a role to play, which is to compensate people who have been harmed.
Exxon and Suncor have denied the allegations, writing in court documents that the plaintiffs are attempting to hold them liable for the “lawful production, promotion, refining, marketing and sales of fossil fuels.”
Of the roughly couple dozen climate-crisis lawsuits in the US seeking damages from energy companies, perhaps none have gotten more attention than a lawsuit brought in 2018 by Baltimore against BP. The city alleges that the company spent years deceiving people about the harm fossil fuels could do — especially to coastal communities like Baltimore.
Sara Gross, the chief of Baltimore’s affirmative-litigation division, is leading the city’s lawsuit against 26 oil and gas companies. Sher Edling is also serving as outside counsel in this lawsuit, which was filed in 2018.
Gross said these actions had been particularly detrimental “to low income Baltimoreans, who bear the effects of climate change disproportionately.” The case, like many others, is still working through procedural arguments over where it will be heard.
Another high-profile climate-crisis lawsuit is Juliana v. United States. It began in 2015 when 21 children sued the US government, alleging its actions have caused the climate emergency and subsequently violated their constitutional rights.
In court documents, the government’s lawyers have said the plaintiffs don’t have standing to bring this lawsuit and that it should be dismissed.
The case has been led by Julia Olson, the executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, which she started in 2010 to lead legal campaigns for young people against governments throughout the world.
She said she had seen much more appetite in recent years to use the courts — which she views as a “vital player” — to battle the climate crisis. But there have still been frustrating delays, she said. Six years in, the plaintiffs have not been able to make their case in court, as they are awaiting a judge’s ruling after filing a motion for leave to file a second amended complaint, she said.
“We’re in an emergency,” Olson said. “This should be a wartime effort that every company and government and person on the planet with capacity is working toward eliminating fossil-fuel production.”
Ambitious climate lawsuits outside the US have generally been more successful. Tessa Khan is a member of Urgenda Foundation’s legal team and a codirector of the Climate Litigation Network.
Urgenda filed a lawsuit in 2013 with about 850 plaintiffs that ended six years later, when the supreme court of the Netherlands upheld a ruling that the country had to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 25% by 2020 compared with 1990 levels.
In perhaps the most consequential climate-crisis court case to date, a Dutch court ruled in 2021 that Royal Dutch Shell had to cut its emissions by 45% by 2030 compared with 2019 levels.
Roger Cox, a lawyer for Friends of the Earth Netherlands, which brought the suit against Royal Dutch Shell, said the ruling marked a “turning point in history,” according to The Guardian. Shell, headquartered in The Hague said on July 20 that it would appeal the ruling, according to The Wall Street Journal.