Fossil fuel groups try to flee landmark climate lawsuit before it goes to trial

On the eve of discovery, all three industry groups are seeking to withdraw from a historic climate lawsuit.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) speaks at a press conference held in front of the Supreme Court in April. CREDIT: Our Children’s Trust
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) speaks at a press conference held in front of the Supreme Court in April. CREDIT: Our Children’s Trust

Three fossil fuel industry groups are seeking to withdraw from a landmark climate change lawsuit — brought against the federal government by a group of youth plaintiffs — filing motions to withdraw on the same day that crucial discovery was required in the case.

The American Petroleum Institute (API), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) — all major trade groups representing fossil fuel and manufacturing interests — did not explicitly state their reasons for wanting to withdraw from the case, though they did all note that leaving would “reduce the amount of discovery and avoid the possibility of duplicative discovery efforts and duplicative proceedings.”

The groups had been ordered to submit to the court their responses to several key questions pertaining to the case, including their position on the science behind climate change. Those responses were supposed to be filed by May 25 — instead, all three groups filed motions to withdraw.

“API and its members will not come clean on the facts of climate change because they know it exposes them to liability for the damage they too have caused to the global climate system,” Julia Olson, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, said in a statement. “After these youths sued the government, the trade associations pleaded their members’ interests would be destroyed if they weren’t allowed to be in the case, but now they are running for the hills. Now, they’ve decided they’re better off being on the sidelines than subjecting themselves to discovery.”

The case — Juliana v. United States — pits a group of children and young adults against the federal government. The youth plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the federal government in August of 2015, arguing that actions taken by the government were endangering their constitutional right to a livable climate. In November, U.S. Federal Judge Ann Aiken ruled that the plaintiffs had enough standing for the case to move forward. Since then, the federal government and fossil fuel intervenors have been trying to keep the case from going to trial, most recently filing a request to have Aiken’s decision appealed Aiken’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

What is perhaps most surprising about the trade group’s desire to withdraw from the case is the fervor with which they fought to be included in the case in the first place. In November of 2015, the three trade groups filed a motion to intervene in the case, arguing that the case was a “direct threat to [their] businesses.”

“The impacts [of this lawsuit] could impair the interests of virtually the entire swatch of the NAM, AFPM, and API’s members,” the motion read. “For all these reasons, it is critical that they have the opportunity to intervene.”

Intervening in the case required the groups to “speak with one voice,” as one attorney representing all three trade associations said in a January 2016 proceeding. But it appears that the groups were not able to come to a consensus on their position regarding key questions pertinent to the case, like their stance on climate science. According to Reuters, court transcripts from a May 18 hearing revealed that the groups were unable to agree on things like how human activity and climate change are related.

“What we know is just the tip of the melting iceberg.”

Withdrawing from the case would mean the trade organizations would not be subject to any discovery in the case. Attorneys for the plaintiffs hoped such discovery might potentially reveal more links than had already been established by informal discover regarding industry knowledge and understanding of the causes and risks of climate change, similar to an Inside Climate News/Los Angeles Times investigation which revealed documents showing ExxonMobil knew about climate change in the 1970s but continued to mislead shareholders about the potential risks for decades. They also hoped that more discovery would reveal the level of influence these groups have had over U.S. climate policy.

“API masterminded the infamous 1998 ‘roadmap’ memo that outlined a plan to cultivate purportedly independent scientists as climate disinformers, confuse the public on climate science and derail climate policies,” Kathy Mulvey, climate accountability campaign manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “What we know is just the tip of the melting iceberg and API is now desperately trying to keep other evidence of its dirty tricks from coming to public light. Big Oil cannot continue to hide behind trade groups — we will hold them accountable.”