On July 2, 2018, the State of Rhode Island (“RI”) filed suit against twenty-one oil and gas companies in an attempt to hold these organizations liable for climate change impacts RI has and will experience. The defendants (Chevron Corp., et al.) removed the case to federal court. On August 17, 2018, RI filed a motion to remand the case back to state court. On Monday, July 22, 2019, the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island granted RI’s motion to remand. The remand order was stayed for sixty days for the court to consider whether a further stay pending appeal is warranted. Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp., 2019 WL 3282007 (D.R.I. July 22, 2019).

In their complaint, RI asserts that the defendants are directly responsible for harm to people and property within RI (such as coastline erosion and extreme weather events) as a result of excessive carbon dioxide emissions arising from the defendants’ conduct. The complaint also alleges the defendants promoted the use of oil and gas products while attacking the credibility of multiple scientific studies in an attempt to conceal the significant risks to people and property the defendants knew were associated with their conduct.

In opposition to RI’s motion, Chevron argued that the plaintiff’s case arises under federal law and is therefore a federal question for a federal court to address. In an opinion reminiscent of every law student’s first-year civil procedure class, the court granted RI’s motion to remand because the state’s well-pleaded complaint contained only state-law causes of action. The court based their conclusion on the long-standing precedent that “removal based on federal-question jurisdiction is only proper where a federal question appears on the face of a well-pleaded complaint.” Id. at *2 (D.R.I. July 22, 2019). (citing Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987)).

Asserting that RI’s complaint attempts to couch a federal issue in a state law-claim, the defendants noted that “a plaintiff may not defeat removal by omitting to plead necessary federal questions in a complaint.” Id. at *2 (quoting Franchise Tax Bd. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Tr. For S. Cal., 463 U.S. 1, 22 (1983)). First, Chevron et al. argued that the state-law claims in RI’s complaint are subject to complete preemption by federal common law and/or statute. Id. While the court conceded that cross-border air and water disputes are generally governed by federal common law, the court found that, unless explicitly stated as such by congress, federal environmental common law does not preempt a state-law public-nuisance claim. Id. at *3.

Additionally, the court disagreed with the defendants’ contention that the Clean Air Act (“CAA”) both “provide[s] the exclusive cause of action for the claim[s] asserted and [ ] set[s] forth procedures and remedies governing that cause of action.” Id. at *3 (quoting Beneficial Nat’l Bank v. Anderson, 539 U.S. 1, 8 (2003)). The court concluded that not only are RI’s claims nothing like those the CAA authorizes, the CAA specifically gives the primary responsibility of controlling air pollution to state and local government. See Id. at *3-4 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 7401(a)(3) (2018)). See also 42 U.S.C. § 7604(2) (“Nothing in this section shall restrict any right . . . under any statute or common law . . . to seek any other relief”).

Lastly, Chevron argued that RI “hid within their state-law claims a ‘federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which a federal forum may entertain without disturbing any congressionally approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities.’” Id. at *4 (quoting Grable & Sons Metal Prods., Inc. v. Darue Eng'g & Mfg., 545 U.S. 308, 314 (2005)). However, the court found that the defendants failed to identify any federal issue or question that was an essential element of RI’s state-law claim.

State of Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp., et al. diverges from two recent federal district court cases that examined similar issues. In California v. BP P.L.C, et al., the plaintiffs’ brought a state-law nuisance claim against major fossil fuel producers alleging the defendants actively sought to discredit scientific research on climate change while knowing the severe risks continued indiscriminate consumption of fossil fuels posed to people and property in the state. 2018 WL 1064293 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 27, 2018). After the case was removed to federal court, the district court denied California’s motion to remand. Id. at *1. In denying the motion, the court characterized the state’s claim as an interstate controversy. Id. at *2 (citing Texas Indus., Inc. v. Radcliff Materials, Inc., 451 U.S. 630, 640 (1981)). Since the claims, though pled as state-law claims, ultimately depended on a “global complex of geophysical cause and effect,” the court held that the federal court, and federal common law, is necessarily involved. Id. at *5.

In City of New York v. B.P. P.L.C., the city of New York (“City”) brought a similar state-law claim against a comparable list of multinational oil and gas companies. 325 F. Supp. 3d 466 (S.D.N.Y. 2018). Although the case was ultimately dismissed, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York held that federal common law displaced the City’s state-law claim because their claim was “ultimately based on the transboundary emissions of greenhouse gases, indicating that these claims arise under federal common law.” Id. at 472.

The City of New York has appealed its case to the Second Circuit, the State of California has appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and it seems likely that Chevron et al. will appeal to the First Circuit. Should these appeals ultimately result in a circuit split, the issue of federal jurisdiction over state-law public-nuisance claims based on harm related to climate change seems destined for the Supreme Court of the United States.