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U.S. communities score a win as Supreme Court let's lawsuits proceed against big oil companies

Exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court a neoclassical building with a columned proscenium. Passerby walk in front.
Exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court. Image Credit: Flickr/Timothy Neesam

Earlier this week, communities across Colorado, Maryland, California, Hawaii and Rhode Island scored a big legal victory against big oil.

Towns and cities across the U.S. are suing oil companies for losses and damages caused by climate change -- alleging that the oil companies knew about the damages of continued fossil fuel use and the impacts it could have on the environment.

New research published this year revealed that ExxonMobil (just to name one of the oil majors) knew precisely what the effects of oil use would be on the planet, but actively funded efforts to deny the facts of its own findings.

In allowing the suits to proceed in state courts, the Supreme Court is setting the stage for a reenactment of the legal battle between states and the tobacco industry.

In the late 90s, the leading companies in the tobacco business agreed to pay out $200 billion over 25 years to settle lawsuits brought by 46 states. These states wanted to be paid back for the money they spent in healthcare costs from smoking-related illnesses.

For decades cigarette companies had denied that smoking had anything to do with cancer and other diseases despite evidence to the contrary.

It's the same tactics that big oil companies have used to deny their role in worsening climate change and fighting regulations that would have curbed oil use.

In Colorado, the city of Boulder and two counties filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor (another large oil company) for their decades of misinformation and contributions to the climate crisis.

The case was taken up by Earthrights International, the Niskanen Center, and the Denver-based Hannon Law firm.

With the ruling, the lawsuit can proceed in local courts, which are likely to be more receptive to the plaintiffs than judges at the Federal level.

"Our lawsuit against Exxon and Suncor should be determined in Colorado state court – where the actions of these companies are negatively impacting our residents. Communities like ours are exposed to destructive climate change impacts caused by the actions of fossil fuel companies while they reap record profits," said Boulder County Commissioner Ashley Stoltzman. "These companies need to pay their fair share to deal with the climate chaos they’ve created and take responsibility for the climate impacts. Local governments cannot shoulder the price tag of climate change alone.”

The ruling from the Supreme Court means that oil companies may be on the hook in more states, if these first lawsuits prove to be successful.

"Big Oil companies have been desperate to avoid trials in state courts, where they will be forced to defend their climate lies in front of juries, and today the Supreme Court declined to bail them out," Richard Wiles, the president of the Center for Climate Integrity, an environmental group, told NBC News.


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