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Oil industry asks Supreme Court to block climate change lawsuits from California, other states

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Oil industry asks Supreme Court to block climate change lawsuits from California, other states

Oil and gas companies are asking the Supreme Court to block dozens of high-powered lawsuits from California to Massachusetts seeking to hold the industry liable for billions of dollars in costs related to climate change.

They are urging the justices to intervene now and rule that climate change is a global phenomenon and a matter for federal law, not one suited to state-by-state claims.

“The stakes could not be higher,” companies said in an appeal that comes before the court on Thursday. “Over two dozen cases have been filed by various states and municipalities across the country seeking to impose untold damages on energy companies … and attempting to assert control over the nation’s energy policies …. This court should put a stop to it.”

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The climate change lawsuits at issue are patterned after the successful mass lawsuits filed by states and others against the tobacco industry over cigarettes and the pharmaceutical industry over opioids.

Cigarettes and opioids were sold legally, but the suits alleged that industry officials conspired to deceive the public and hide the true dangers of their highly profitable products.

Last September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta sounded the same theme when they filed a lawsuit in San Francisco County Superior Court against five of the largest oil and gas companies — Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP — and the American Petroleum Institute for what they described as a “decades-long campaign of deception” that created climate-related harms in California.

“For more than 50 years, Big Oil has been lying to us — covering up the fact that they’ve long known how dangerous the fossil fuels they produce are for our planet,” Newsom said in announcing the suit.

Bonta said the oil and gas companies “have privately known the truth for decades — that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change — but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment …. It is time they pay to abate the harm they have caused.”

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Under state law, plaintiffs can seek damages for broad and open-ended claims like a failure to warn of a danger, false advertising or creating a public nuisance. All three claims are cited in California’s lawsuit. Federal law, by contrast, is usually limited to damage claims that arise from a federal law.

The city and state officials suing the energy industry are determined to keep the climate change cases in state courts, while industry lawyers have fought hard — but so far unsuccessfully — to move them to federal jurisdiction.

Over the last four years, the justices have turned away procedural appeals from the energy industry seeking to transfer these cases from state to federal courts.

This week, however, the industry’s lawyers are asking the justices to decide the underlying question that affects all of them: Does federal law and the Clean Air Act override or preempt states and their courts from punishing the oil industry for the harm caused by greenhouse gases?

“This is the end game for the oil companies,” said Pat Parenteau, an environmental law expert at the Vermont Law School. “They want to get this in front of the conservative Supreme Court. It’s an attempt to knock out all of these cases.”

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Los Angeles lawyer Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., who represents Chevron, said the pending lawsuits are based on an “outlandish” legal theory rooted in false advertising claims, rather than on the underlying greenhouse gas emissions.

“It is extremely important for the Supreme Court to grant review now,” he said. “Global climate change requires a coordinated international policy response, not the unleashing of dozens of baseless local lawsuits that could wreak havoc on federal energy policy and go on for years, even if they are ultimately doomed to failure.”

If the court votes to hear the cases, Sunoco vs. City of Honolulu and Shell vs. Honolulu, it will be a victory for the energy industry and a sign that the justices are likely to block the climate change lawsuits. The justices would hear arguments in the fall.

If the appeals are turned down, however, even more cities and states will be encouraged to file claims of their own and seek billions in damages from the fossil fuel industries.

The case under appeal began four years ago when the city and county of Honolulu sued Sunoco and 14 other major oil and gas producers alleging a failure to warn and creating a nuisance.

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The Hawaii Supreme Court last year refused to dismiss the case.

“Simply put, the plaintiffs say the issue is whether defendants misled the public about fossil fuels’ dangers and environmental impact. We agree …. This suit does not seek to regulate emissions and does not seek damages for interstate emissions,” the state court said in a unanimous opinion. “Rather, plaintiffs’ complaint clearly seeks to challenge the promotion and sale of fossil-fuel products without warning and abetted by a sophisticated disinformation campaign.”

The issue has divided the red and blue states.

At an early of stage of the Sunoco case, California joined with 12 other Democratic-leaning states in urging the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to keep the suit in Hawaii state court. They argued the case was about protecting consumers from “deceptive conduct,” which is “an area traditionally regulated by the states.”

When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Alabama and 19 other Republican-led states filed a friend-of-the court brief on the side of the oil companies.

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They argued that Hawaii and its courts do not have “power to enact disastrous global energy policies via state tort law … and imperil access to affordable energy.”

Separately, Alabama filed an unusual motion in May asking the Supreme Court to allow an “original” claim to raise the same issue. Typically, original claims arise from state disputes over boundaries or river water. Legal experts doubted the court would grant such a claim.

Lawyers for Honolulu urged the court to stand aside for now and wait, likely for several years, until there is a final verdict in its lawsuit.

The justices could announce by mid-June whether they will take up the climate change cases.

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Eggs of grapevine-gobbling insect snagged en route to California. Are vineyards at risk?

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Eggs of grapevine-gobbling insect snagged en route to California. Are vineyards at risk?

Eggs of the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species that’s wreaked havoc on crops across more than a dozen states, were recently discovered on a metal art installation that was headed to Sonoma County, one of California’s most esteemed wine regions.

The discovery of the infamous bug’s eggs represents the first time the insect has been seen in California. The California Assn. of Winegrape Gowers, a statewide nonprofit, warns the invasive plant-hopper native to Asia has the potential to affect the entire winegrape industry in California, potentially pushing up prices if an infestation results in a smaller grape crop.

“Spotted lanternflies have been found in 18 states and have proven to pose a serious threat to vineyards,” Natalie Collins, president of the growers group, said. “These invasive insects feed on the sap of grapevines, while also leaving behind a sticky honeydew residue on the clusters and leaves.”

Impacts of the stress on the plant could range from reduced yields — and fewer bottles of wine for consumers — and, if severe and persistent enough, complete vine death and higher wine prices. No adult spotted lanterflies have been reported in the state, Collins said.

California is responsible for an average of 81% of the total U.S. wine production each year, according to the Wine Institute.

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The association warned that if there are additional egg masses in California from other shipments that haven’t been detected “they may produce adult [spotted lanternflies] in the coming weeks with peak populations expected in late summer or early fall.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture last year developed an action plan to try to eradicate the pests if they were to enter the state. State officials have asked the public to look for egg masses outdoors. If a bug is found, they recommend grabbing it and placing it in a container where it can’t escape, snapping a photo and reporting it to the CDFA Pest Hotline at (800) 491-1899

The metal art installation on which the eggs were found was shipped to California in late March from New York, where the insects have been a persistent problem. After 11 viable egg masses were spotted at the Truckee Border Protection Station, the 30-foot-tall artwork was sent back to Nevada, where officials discovered an additional 30 egg masses. The art was power washed with detergent and then sent on its way again to Truckee, according to the association.

By the time the installation reached Sonoma County on April 4, the owner agreed to allow officials to open up the hollow beams in the artwork to inspect it further. Inside, they found an additional three egg masses and searched until they were confident no other eggs were present.

Spotted lanternflies were first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014 and quickly spread to nearby states, where they became a nuisance. In New York they proved to be such a problem that officials encouraged residents to kill them on sight. The pest has become so notorious that it made an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in a 2022 skit where one viewer applauded them for capturing “the unbelievable hubris of the lanternfly.”

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While they feed on more than 100 different plant species, they have a particular affinity for grapevines and a tree known as the “tree of heaven.” The adults, which have the ability to fly short distances, are typically 1 inch long. At rest, with its wings folded, the bug is a dull tan-gray color with black spots. During flight, its open wings feature a bright red, black and white pattern.

The species is often described as a “hitchhiker,” since its egg masses appear similar to cakes of mud and can easily be transported on tractor trailers and semi-trucks. During the first three immature stages of the bug’s life cycle they appear to be black with white spots and later turn red and black with white spots.

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After a pandemic strike, nurses union must pay Riverside hospital millions in damages

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After a pandemic strike, nurses union must pay Riverside hospital millions in damages

The union representing nurses at Riverside Community Hospital has been ordered to pay more than $6 million to the hospital for the fallout from a 2020 strike.

The unusual financial penalty was imposed by an arbitrator who found the 10-day work stoppage during the pandemic violated the terms of the labor agreement signed by HCA Healthcare, which operates the hospital, and Service Employees International Union Local 121RN. The $6.26-million fine, the arbitrator determined, was necessary to compensate the hospital for the cost of replacing workers who walked off the job during the strike, according to a statement released Wednesday.

Nurses walked off the job in June 2020 in an effort to force the hospital to increase staffing and improve safety as COVID-19 infections surged, the union said at the time. But hospital officials argued that because nurses also voiced complaints about shortages of personal protective equipment, the reasons for the strike were too expansive to be allowed under the collective bargaining agreement the two sides had signed.

“Our contract was clear, and the union showed reckless disregard for its members and the Riverside community by calling the strike,” said Jackie Van Blaricum, president of HCA Healthcare’s Far West Division, who was the hospital’s chief executive during the strike. “We applaud the arbitrator’s decision.”

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SEIU 121RN Executive Director Rosanna Mendez objected to the arbitrator’s findings, saying nurses were permitted under their contract to go on strike. She called the arbitrator’s decision “absurd and outrageous.”

“It is absolutely shocking that an arbitrator would expect nurses to not talk about safety issues,” Mendez said, adding that the union was exploring its options to contest the arbitrator’s decision.

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Supreme Court rejects California man's attempt to trademark Trump T-shirts

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Supreme Court rejects California man's attempt to trademark Trump T-shirts

The Supreme Court on Thursday turned down a California attorney’s bid to trademark the phrase “Trump Too Small” for his exclusive use on T-shirts.

The justices said trademark law forbids the use of a living person’s name, including former President Trump.

The vote was 9-0.

Trump was not a party to the case of Vidal vs. Elster, but in the past he objected when businesses and others tried to make use of his name.

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Concord, Calif., attorney Steve Elster said he was amused in 2016 when Republican presidential candidates exchanged comments about the size of Trump’s hands during a debate. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whom Trump had mocked as “Little Marco,” asked Trump to hold up his hands, which he did. “You know what they say about guys with small hands,” Rubio said.

After Trump won the election, Elster decided to sell T-shirts with the phrase “Trump Too Small,” which he said was meant to criticize Trump’s lack of accomplishments on civil rights, the environment and other issues.

Legally he was free to do so, but the U.S. Patent and Copyright Office denied his request to trademark the phrase for his exclusive use.

When he appealed the denial, he won a ruling from a federal appeals court which said his “Trump Too Small” slogan was political commentary protected by the 1st Amendment.

The Biden administration’s Solicitor Gen. Elizabeth Prelogar appealed and urged the Supreme Court to reject the trademark request.

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She acknowledged that Elster had a free-speech right to mock the former president, but argued he did not have the right to “assert property rights in another person’s name.”

“For more than 75 years, Congress has directed the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to refuse the registration of trademarks that use the name of a particular living individual without his written consent,” she said.

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said Thursday: “Elster contends that this prohibition violates his 1st Amendment right to free speech. We hold that it does not,”

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