Climate lawyers could control the future of American energy, not consumers

When we think of American energy, we conjure up images of oil drillers, refineries, pipelines, and end products we put into our cars or the plastic products we use daily.

There are millions of jobs and billions of products sourced from energy production that make our society abundant and wealthy. That’s especially true today under President Joe Biden, as production of both oil and gas for domestic use and exports has soared to record levels, making the US the premier global energy powerhouse. And that’s despite Biden’s recent temporary pause on exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Those who invest in, supply, and direct that industry are the hundreds of oil and gas firms, independent refineries, plastic manufacturers, and transportation companies. American consumers are in on it as well, supporting the industry either by providing their labor, investing their retirement funds, or being frequent customers. It is how we power the American economy, and increasingly, the world.

All of that is being put to the test in the wake of a growing legal movement to sever consumers’ connections to energy firms for their alleged role in advancing anthropogenic climate change.

In left-leaning cities like Honolulu, San Francisco, and Minneapolis, judges are being asked to litigate massive lawsuits brought by top-tier climate lawyers against oil and gas companies like Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and others, with claims that energy firms used “deceptive marketing” to advertise their oil and gas products without significant warnings about the climate impact.

The looming question that has so far slowed these claims is whether local courts are the appropriate venue to decide whether the energy industry will be saddled with the blame for climate change, or if the issue is consequential enough that it deserves a fair trial in federal court.

The Supreme Court has thus far booted similar cases back to district courts and denied any from reaching its docket, but one recent filing may change the game.

In the case filed by the city of Honolulu against Sunoco and other firms, the Supreme Court last month was asked for the first time to assess the merits of whether the case should even proceed, rather than just its court jurisdiction. If and when the Supreme Court issues an opinion, it would also either boost or sink the other major case brought by California’s Attorney General Rob Bonta last fall, currently awaiting further action in San Francisco.

How courts in San Francisco and Hawaii would decide on climate change litigation is predictable, but the Supreme Court’s evaluation would be a toss-up. The ramifications for American energy, especially for the consumers who depend on it, can’t be overstated.

While most American people are optimistic about renewable energy from solar and wind, over 68% of them still believe that progress should happen in tandem with fossil fuels, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. And these cases could determine whether that status quo continues.

As such, the future of the American energy industry is not in the hands of shareholders, consumers, or even politicians, but rather a tiny group of well-funded and overstaffed legal firms supporting environmental groups that manifest these lawsuits across the country in friendly jurisdictions.

Many of the legal theories underpinning these cases are being shepherded through law schools, such as the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia or the Environment and Energy State Impact Center at NYU. Each of these programs train law students in how to advance climate change litigation and generate briefs for state attorneys general. No surprise, the effort has been buoyed by philanthropist support from billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

Allied environmental nonprofits take that work even further, lobbying state attorneys general and even providing high-dollar grants and awards to those offices that embark on climate change litigation.

As Americans, we’re very familiar with lawsuits, lawyers, and cases we’re all supposed to care about. What makes the latest spat of climate change lawsuits so consequential, however, is that any ruling would have an immediate effect on how we power and fuel our lives.

Without affordable or ready climate solutions, many of us would be left shouldering extra costs based on the whims of a few judges and activist lawyers in small, left-leaning districts. That price is too high.

We desperately need technological innovation to solve climate change, and that won’t be found in a California or Hawaii courtroom. We can only hope that some sharp judicial minds will feel the same way.

Yaël Ossowski is a consumer and technology advocate, journalist, and writer. He is the deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center.

This article was originally published in the OC Register (archive link).

It was also syndicated in several other papers: