Supreme court ruling delays climate litigation big oil has sought to thwart

<span>An oil refinery in Houston, Texas, in 2020.</span><span>Photograph: Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images</span>
An oil refinery in Houston, Texas, in 2020.Photograph: Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images

The supreme court on Monday asked the Biden administration to weigh in on big oil’s request to thwart litigation that could put them on the hook for billions of dollars.

The one-line order will delay the litigation from advancing to trial. It follows an unprecedented pressure campaign from far-right fossil fuel allies on the court.

“Big oil companies are fighting desperately to avoid trial in lawsuits like Honolulu’s, which would expose the evidence of the fossil fuel industry’s climate lies for the entire world to see,” said Richard Wiles, president of the non-profit Center for Climate Integrity, which supports climate accountability litigation.

Honolulu is one of dozens of cities and states to sue oil majors for allegedly hiding the dangers of their products from the public. In October, Hawaii’s supreme court ruled that the suit can go to trial.

But the defendants petitioned the US supreme court in February to review that decision, arguing the cases should be thrown out because emissions are a federal issue that cannot be tried in state courts.

The high court receives thousands of petitions each year, giving each one only a small chance of being reviewed. But in recent weeks, rightwing fossil fuel allies have pushed the justices to take up oil companies’ request, publishing a slew of op-eds and social media advertisements.

Some of the groups behind the pressure campaign – which experts say is unprecedented – are connected to far-right supreme court architect Leonard Leo, who co-chairs the ultraconservative legal advocacy group the Federalist Society.

“I have never, ever seen this kind of overt political campaign to influence the court like this,” said Patrick Parenteau, professor and senior climate policy fellow at Vermont Law School, told the Guardian last week.

It is not clear how much Monday’s order will delay the Honolulu case, which was filed in 2020. In October 2022, the supreme court referred a similar petition, involving a climate accountability case brought by Colorado communities, to the Department of Justice. The solicitor general weighed in the following March, siding with the plaintiffs.

While awaiting an opinion in the Honolulu case, companies may also file motions to stay – or pause – proceedings in similar litigation filed by other cities and states, though it is not clear the lower courts will grant them.

On the campaign trail, Biden promised to push his justice department to “strategically support” climate litigation. Advocates say Monday’s order will provide the Biden Department of Justice with an opportunity to make good on that promise.

The solicitor general, they say, should affirm the Hawaii supreme court’s earlier decision and call for the petition to be rejected.

The oil companies insist that only federal policy should handle the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. But the plaintiffs and their supporters say that the lawsuit is “not seeking to solve climate change or regulate emissions”, but rather aiming to force big oil to “stop lying and pay their fair share of the damages they knowingly caused”, said Alyssa Johl, vice-president of legal at the Center for Climate Integrity.

Justice Samuel Alito did not participate in the supreme court’s consideration of the petition, probably because he owned stock in ConocoPhillips, a defendant in the case.