All posts tagged 'Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil'

Native Village of Kivalina Files Its Petition for Certiorari - A Five-Year Climate Change Litigation Marathon That Has Yet to Start

March 15, 2013 05:54
by J. Wylie Donald
One day short of five years since the case was originally filed, on February 25, 2013 the plaintiffs in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. attempt once more to get out of the starting blocks, this time with a petition for certiorari  to the United States Supreme Court.  This follows dismissal by the Northern District of California in 2009, affirmance of the dismissal by the Ninth Circuit last September, and denial of a petition for rehearing en banc in November.   To be trite, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  The response, if any, is due on April 3.  We can expect a decision on the petition a few weeks after that.  The substance of the petition was easily predicted.  The tension between Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Ass’n, 453 U.S. 1 (1981), and Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471 (2008), and mentioned by the concurrence (Judge Pro, sitting by designation on the Ninth Circuit) is the center of the argument.  Indeed it is the only issue behind the question presented:  “Whether the Clean Air Act, which provides no damages remedy to persons harmed by greenhouse gas emissions, displaces federal common-law claims for damages.” According to the petitioners, the starting point for the analysis is the Court’s 1981 decision in Milwaukee v. Illinois, 451 U.S. 304 (1981) (“Milwaukee II”), where Illinois sought to enjoin Milwaukee’s federally permitted Clean Water Act discharges using the federal common law of nuisance.  Petition at 7.   In rejecting Illinois’s claim, the Court “focused carefully on whether the statutory scheme ‘spoke directly’ to the plaintiff’s ‘problem,’ and whether the statute gave the plaintiff a means ‘to protect its interests.’”  Id. at 8.  The same year, however, the Court also, according to petitioners, issued Middlesex, a decision sharply diverging from Milwaukee II. In Middlesex, fishermen aggrieved by ocean dumping were found to have no federal common law remedy because “’the federal common law of nuisance in the area of water pollution is entirely pre-empted by the more comprehensive scope’ of the [Clean Water Act].” Id. at 10. These two threads came together 27 years later in Exxon Shipping, where the Court “departed from any broad reading of Middlesex and returned to the more pragmatic and careful analysis of Milwaukee II.”  Id. Or maybe not.  Kivalina in candor also acknowledged: To be sure, it is possible to read Middlesex narrowly so as to reconcile the decision with Exxon Shipping.  Given Exxon Shipping’s statement that Middlesex is limited to situations where “plaintiffs’ common law nuisance claims amounted to arguments for effluent-discharge standards different from those provided by the CWA,” then it appears that a federal common law damages claim is displaced only where it is so inextricably intertwined with claims for injunctive relief that it amounts to second-guessing of the prospective statutory standards.  Id. at 11-12. Petitioners tied up their arguments with reference to American Electric Power v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011) (“AEP”), the case that established that greenhouse gas claims were displaced by the Clean Air Act.  AEP, it was asserted, “pointedly did not follow Middlesex in concluding that the whole 'federal common law of nuisance is entirely' displaced by a 'comprehensive' regulatory scheme, which would have made for a much shorter, and very different, AEP opinion.” Petition at 12.  Instead, the gravamen of AEP was that the displaced claims were those that would have interfered with EPA’s authority.  Id. at 13. In sum, “Milwaukee II, Middlesex, Exxon Shipping and AEP cannot all be correctly decided, yet all of them are viewed as good law – a conundrum that Judge Pro acknowledged in his opinion concurring in the result and that ultimately led him, and the other members of the panel, to a result in this case that is at odds with the fundamental rationale for displacement and with basic fairness.”  Id. Stated differently, Exxon Shipping permitted common-law damages even though the Clean Water Act displaced claims for injunctive relief.  This was to be contrasted with Middlesex, which “held that  a federal common-law damages claim was displaced by the Clean Water Act.”   Id. at i.  We expect that the Kivalina defendants will have a different point of view. The second part of the petition is the analysis of why the case is so important that the Court should hear it.  Kivalina gave four reasons: 1.  Climate change is an extremely important subject.  In a pointed salvo, petitioners cited to the petition for certiorari in AEP, where some of the same defendants stated “’The questions presented by this case are recurring and of exceptional importance to the Nation.’”2. Displacement presents a fundamental question of boundaries between the legislative and judicial branches.3. GHG emissions claims are “inherently important because of the extraordinary nature of global warming.”  4. Kivalina’s very existence is at stake. Notwithstanding all that, the odds of the petition being granted are long.  The Court only accepts between 100-150 of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year.  That is less than a 2% chance, all things being equal.   Greenhouse gas emissions were on the Court’s docket in 2007 (Massachusetts v. EPA) and again in 2011 (AEP v. Connecticut).  While we agree that climate change cases are important; we are skeptical that this narrow issue (displacement of damages, when the Court has already ruled on displacement of injunctive relief) justifies a place at the finish line, marathon or no.

Climate Change Litigation | Greenhouse Gases | Sustainability

Oral Argument in Kivalina: Winds of Change or Climate Change Liability Suits Becalmed?

December 4, 2011 20:16
by J. Wylie Donald
On November 8-9, 2011 an Arctic gale bore down on the peninsulas, islands, salt marshes and beaches of the Alaska littoral.  Named the Bering Sea Superstorm it pounded Alaska with 8-10 foot storm surges, wind gusts up to 75 mph and blizzard conditions.  One small community was particularly fearful.  Many readers already know of whom we are speaking:  Kivalina.  The National Weather Service wrote:  "WIDESPREAD MAJOR COASTAL FLOODING AND SEVERE BEACH EROSION IS EXPECTED IN THE FOLLOWING AREAS: ... 4. THE CHUKCHI SEA COAST FROM CAPE KRUSENSTERN TO POINT HOPE. THIS INCLUDES THE VILLAGES OF NOME AND KIVALINA WHERE MAJOR DAMAGE FROM COASTAL FLOODING AND STRONG WINDS IS EXPECTED.  Fortunately, the seawall at Kivalina held. While unusual, this was one storm of thousands that have visited high winds and storm surge upon Alaska's shoreline over the millennia.  Last Monday a storm of a different sort broke. Although not even rated on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the verbal gusts exhaled before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Native Village of Kivalina v ExxonMobil Corp. may have substantially more effect than any Arctic storm.  Or they may not. (Click here for the video or audio link or oral argument.) Kudos must be extended to Matt Pawa (Appellant Kivalina) and Daniel Collins (Defendants/Appellees) for masterful argument.  Both were completely on top of their game, whether it was jousting with the Court or each other over the Restatement (Second) (and sometimes Third), laying out their key arguments or responding to pointed questions from Judges Thomas, Clifton or Pro (on temporary assignment from the District of Nevada). (For those to whom Kivalina is not familiar, in a nutshell, a native Alaskan village on the shores of the Chukchi Sea has brought suit against electric utilities, oil companies and one coal company.  The complaint asserts the defendants are responsible for excess emissions of greenhouse gases, which have led to global warming, which has resulted in delayed formation of arctic sea ice and early melting as well, which has accelerated the erosion caused by winter storms.  The plaintiffs seek damages for the cost of relocating their village.  The suit was dismissed on political question grounds by the District Court for the Northern  District of California; it is now on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.) Mr. Pawa opened his argument with the proposition that it is black letter law that no balancing of interests is needed where an intentionally caused nuisance is causing a claimant serious harm.  He cited numerous Restatement sections in support.  The Court seemed skeptical.  Judge Clifton asserted in his question that balancing was called for in the Restatement.  Judge Pro wanted to know what instructions Mr. Pawa would give to the jury.  Judge Clifton queried:  "Why is it so difficult to find a case that remotely resembles this one?"  Mr. Pawa pointed to People v. Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co., 66 Cal. 138, 4 P. 1152 (1884), which established, he said, that valid nuisance claims lie against all polluters of a common resource.  (We, of course, take strong exception to any referral to carbon dioxide as pollution in light of its ubiquity, natural presence, and lack of toxicity in the atmosphere.  The parallels to water vapor - the most prevalent greenhouse gas and in no one's estimation a pollutant - are striking.) Although  there was not enough time in argument to fully develop Gold Run Ditch, it is worth a moment to consider.  There the California Supreme Court was asked to enjoin hydraulic mining which was despoiling California's rivers and threatening agricultural interests.  In holding that an injunction against the hydraulic mining operator should issue, the Court wrote: But a legitimate private business, founded upon a local custom, may grow into a force to threaten the safety of the people, and destruction to public and private rights; and when it develops into that condition, the custom upon which it is founded becomes unreasonable, because dangerous to public and private rights, and cannot be invoked to justify the continuance of the business in an unlawful manner. Every business has its laws, and these require of those who are engaged in it to so conduct it as that it shall not violate the rights that belong to others. Accompanying the ownership of every species of property is a corresponding duty to so use it as that it shall not abuse the rights of other recognized owners ... Upon that underlying principle, neither State nor Federal legislatures could, by silent acquiescence, or by attempted legislation ... divest the people of the State of their rights in the navigable waters of the State for the use of a private business, however extensive or long continued .... As we have already said, the rights of the people in the navigable rivers of the State are paramount and controlling.  66 Cal. at 152. The effect of Gold Run Ditch and a parallel decision in federal court, Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Mining Co., 18 F. 753 (1884), effectively ended hydraulic mining in California.  Whether a similar ruling could be used against entities emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere remains to be seen. Another interesting argument broached by Mr. Pawa concerned what he referred to as trivial emitters.  Judge Thomas played into his hand with a question about whether his driving to work made him a defendant.   According to Mr. Pawa Section 36 of the Restatement  (Third) takes care of that issue and negates liability to trivial emitters.  That section provides:  "When an actor’s negligent conduct constitutes only a trivial contribution to a causal set that is a factual cause of physical harm under § 27, the harm is not within the scope of the actor’s liability."  Mr. Pawa would permit the defendants to demonstrate that they constitute trivial contributors to the global warming problem. In closing, Mr. Pawa cited the substantial precedent in his clients' favor.  The Second Circuit reversed the trial court and found standing for the plaintiffs in Connecticut v. AEP, 582 F.3d 309 (2d Cir. 2009), which was not reversed by the Supreme Court.  Likewise the appellate panel in Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, 585 F.3d 855 (5th Cir. 2009), also reversed the trial court and found standing for the climate change liability plaintiffs.  (Mr. Pawa acknowledged that the decision had been vacated and cited the decision for the panel's thinking, not as precedent.)  Last, in Massachusetts v. EPA, 127 S.Ct. 1438 (2007), the Supreme Court also found standing for an entity alleging damage from greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Collins responded to Mr. Pawa's arguments and knocked down plaintiffs' claim that black letter law established that balancing was not required.  Mr. Collins pointed to comment e of section 821B of the Restatement (Second) which requires an assessment of reasonableness whether the allegation is an intentional, reckless or negligent nuisance.  Further, the balancing required by plaintiffs' claims is "utterly without precedent."  "But balancing is what courts do all the time," interjected Judge Pro.  "Nothing on this scale has ever been remitted to a court," rejoined Mr. Collins.  This is not a case about a discreet pollution site; it is a case of global dimensions and there is no traceability of the emitted carbon dioxide (as the plaintiffs conceded). The Court was not so easily put off and brought up AEP, where the Second Circuit had permitted plaintiffs to proceed with their greenhouse gas liability claim, and the Supreme Court had not reversed.  Mr. Collins had seen that softball coming:  AEP is different because some of the plaintiffs were sovereigns, which was not the case here. Mr. Collins closed with strong points on his clients' primary position:  displacement of the federal common law applies to both injunctive and damages remedies.  This was established in Middlesex County Sewerage Auth. v. Sea Clammers, 453 U.S. 1, 13 (1981).  The reason is simple.  When Congress crafted the regulatory framework establishing the Clean Air Act, which displaced injunctive remedies, see American Electric Power v. Connecticut, Congress did not provide for any compensatory relief to an aggrieved private party.  Accordingly, a damages remedy is also displaced and the plaintiffs' claim is barred.  As the Ninth Circuit had itself held in In re Exxon Valdez, 270 F.3d. 1215 (9th Cir. 2001):  "a nuisance theory would enable a federal district judge to substitute a different balancing of interests from the one made by the agency to which Congress assigned the job".  In our view the Court's decision is not likely to be the final curtain.  If it goes in favor of the plaintiffs, the defendants will certainly appeal.  And if the defendants prevail, the state law claims (dismissed by the federal district court without prejudice) are likely to be refilled, particularly with the invitation set forth in by the Supreme Court in AEP:  "None of the parties have briefed preemption or otherwise addressed the availability of a claim under state nuisance law. We therefore leave the matter open for consideration on remand."

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court

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