Judge Narrowly Rejects Delaware Attorney General’s Claims in Lawsuit Against Fossil Fuel Industry

WILMINGTON, Del. — A judge in Delaware has dismissed several claims made by the state’s attorney general in a lawsuit accusing the fossil fuel industry of downplaying the risks of climate change. This ruling significantly narrows the scope of the suit, which sought to hold the industry accountable for the effects of air pollution within the state.

Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Jennings filed the lawsuit in 2020, teaming up with a California law firm that has previously sued the oil industry on behalf of other state and local governments.

While Superior Court Judge Mary Johnston refused to dismiss all claims, she ruled that the federal Clean Air Act preempts the state’s claims seeking damages for injuries caused by out-of-state or global greenhouse emissions and interstate pollution. However, Johnston noted that if the air pollution originates from sources within Delaware, the claims can proceed.

In her ruling, Johnston emphasized that state and local governments have the primary responsibility for preventing and controlling air pollution at its source.

Theodore Boutrous Jr., an attorney representing Chevron Corp., expressed satisfaction with the judge’s recognition that claims related to out-of-state or global greenhouse emissions and interstate pollution are preempted by the Clean Air Act. He stated, “The global challenge of climate change requires a coordinated international policy response, not a series of baseless state and local lawsuits.”

In addition to the dismissed claims, the judge also stated that the state can pursue a general claim for environmental-based public nuisance and trespass on land directly owned by the state, but not on land held “in public trust.” The judge cited a previous ruling by the Delaware Supreme Court in a lawsuit filed by Jennings against Monsanto over environmental damage caused by now-banned toxic chemicals.

The judge also ruled that claims of “greenwashing” and misrepresentations by the defendants about the effects of fossil fuels on climate change must be dismissed because the state failed to provide specific allegations against each individual defendant. The state will have the opportunity to amend the complaint to include particular allegations.

Furthermore, the judge ruled that claims made by Jennings’ office under the Delaware Consumer Fraud Act are barred by the statute of limitations, as the five-year deadline has expired. The judge noted that evidence showed that the general public had knowledge of climate change and its effects decades before the expiration of the limitations period.

The ruling deferred a decision on the American Petroleum Institute’s argument that its statements regarding fossil fuels are protected by the First Amendment. The state contends that the API engaged in deceptive campaigns to mislead the public about the hazards of fossil fuel consumption. API argues that its purpose was to comment on matters of public significance as it does not produce or sell any fossil fuels.

Mat Marshall, a spokesperson for Jennings, stated that the office is reviewing the ruling and evaluating the next steps. Marshall expressed gratitude for the court’s denial of the oil defendants’ attempts to evade accountability.

In conclusion, a judge in Delaware has dismissed several claims in a lawsuit alleging that the fossil fuel industry downplayed the risks of climate change. The ruling narrowed the scope of the suit, indicating that the federal Clean Air Act preempts claims related to out-of-state or global greenhouse emissions and interstate pollution. The state will still be able to pursue claims related to air pollution originating from sources within Delaware, as well as general claims for environmental-based public nuisance and trespass. However, claims of misrepresentations and violations of the Delaware Consumer Fraud Act were dismissed. The ruling also deferred a decision on whether the statements made by the American Petroleum Institute are protected by the First Amendment.