Environmental activists in King County and SeattleSeattle's King County is suing the oil industry over climate impacts, but wants to see how two California appeals turn out first. Photo credit: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

A federal judge has agreed to put the brakes on a lawsuit filed by King County, Wash., against five major oil companies for knowingly contributing to climate change.

U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnick on Wednesday approved a motion filed by the county to stay proceedings on its lawsuit pending a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the dismissal of similar suits filed by Oakland and San Francisco.

In its suit, which was filed earlier this year in King County Superior Court, the county alleges that the companies—Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP and ConocoPhillips—knew for decades about fossil fuels’ role in driving climate change and the potential impacts but deliberately failed to inform the public about those risks. The case was subsequently moved to federal court.

The county is seeking to hold the companies accountable, asking that they be required to fund the costs of adapting stormwater infrastructure, protecting public health, salmon recovery and other climate change-related costs. King County encompasses Seattle, the largest city in the Northwest.

In the motion to stay—which was unopposed by ConocoPhillips, Exxon and Shell—the county said its case is akin to cases filed in Oakland and San Francisco, which are currently under appeal in the Ninth Circuit. Both cities sued the same companies and are represented by the same attorneys.

Like the King County suit, the Oakland and San Francisco cases were initially filed in state court. They were moved by the defendants to federal court, where Judge William Alsup in the Northern District of California rejected motions by the cities to move the cases back to state court.

Alsup eventually dismissed the claims, ruling that nuisance claims arise under federal, not state, common law. He also said the problem of global warming is too vast in scope to deem just five companies liable and said the executive and legislative branches of government are the proper place to resolve it. The cities have since appealed to the Ninth Circuit and briefs from both sides are due in the coming months.

In its motion, King County also pointed to suits by San Mateo and San Marin counties and the city of Imperial Beach against more than two dozen fossil fuel companies. A different federal judge, Vince Chhabria, disagreed with Alsup and remanded the cases back to state court. The companies sued in those cases have appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit and briefs in those cases are also due in the coming months.

In his ruling on King County’s motion Wednesday, Lasnick said it was prudent to wait for the Ninth Circuit to rule on the Oakland and San Francisco cases before proceeding. He agreed that the Oakland and San Francisco cases are “identical” or “materially identical to the King County suit and that upcoming rulings by the Ninth Circuit will likely have “…significant relevance to—and potentially control—the court’s subsequent ruling here.”

“There is substantial overlap between the present action and the Oakland/San Francisco Actions, particularly with regard to how and whether state-law public nuisance claims are preempted by federal common law,” Lasnick wrote.

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