Overwhelmed sewers. Flooded streets. Deadly heat waves. Baltimore is one of many American cities where the costs of climate change far exceed local resources. Should oil companies pay?



The Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case brought by the city of Baltimore. Baltimore is arguing that major oil and gas companies should be forced to pay for the costs of climate change. More than 20 cities and states have brought similar suits. This is the first to be considered by the highest court. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Baltimore is an old city. It was once a rich city. But the city's infrastructure was never built for climate change, and Baltimore can't keep up with the costs.

MICHEL ANDERSON: Yeah, so we're basically - we're walking along the Jones Falls.

HERSHER: Michel Anderson does community outreach for the clean water advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore. Construction crews are upgrading pipes that were laid about 100 years ago. It was a state-of-the-art sewer and stormwater system.

ANDERSON: It was considered an engineering marvel at the time. It rivaled the sewers of Paris, from what I read.

HERSHER: Not much of that historic history is obvious in 2020. The system is starting to fail. Pipes have cracked, and they're too small to handle the water during big rains. Anderson points across the river where a sign says health warning.

ANDERSON: That dumps tens of millions of gallons of sewage into the waterway. You know, and that's during severe rainstorms, which increase due to climate change.

HERSHER: Baltimore is getting a lot more rain as the earth heats up. Extreme rainstorms - when a lot of water falls in just a few hours - have increased by about 75% since the 1950s. In 2014, extreme rain helped cause a retaining wall to collapse onto train tracks in central Baltimore.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).

HERSHER: Someone caught it on tape at the moment it crashed down.



HERSHER: Thankfully, no one was injured. But the cost to fix the damage was at least $12 million. In another instance, sea level rise and extreme rain drowned downtown in 7 feet of water. In the next 30 years, the city estimates that the portion of downtown Baltimore that will flood frequently will increase by about 150%. A quick look at the city's budget makes it clear that the billions of dollars required to fully upgrade sewers and drainage, build seawalls, reinforce roads and restore wetlands far exceeds what the city can afford on its own. And so in 2018, the mayor and City Council of Baltimore filed a lawsuit against about a dozen major oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell and BP. Then-city solicitor, Andre Davis, announced the suit.


ANDRE DAVIS: These companies must be held accountable. Climate change is a reality.

HERSHER: The city argues that companies should help pay for the costs of climate change because companies have known for decades that fossil fuels cause global warming. More than 20 cities and states have filed similar suits in recent years. Karen Sokol is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

KAREN SOKOL: These cases have the potential to be quite powerful if they finally see their day in court.

HERSHER: The Supreme Court is only considering a narrow question. Where should the case be tried - in state court, as Baltimore argues, or in federal court, as the companies argue? Phil Goldberg is an attorney who represents the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group that filed an amicus brief in support of the oil companies.

PHIL GOLDBERG: This isn't something that the energy companies created. This is a byproduct of modern society.

HERSHER: Goldberg says dealing with the costs of climate change is something Congress should be working on, not the courts.

GOLDBERG: This litigation is really a counterproductive distraction at the end of the day for those of us who really want to get something done on the climate.

HERSHER: Sokol, the law professor, says she thinks cities and states have a strong argument under state law that oil and gas companies have misled the public about the dangers of fossil fuels. If the justices decide in Baltimore's favor, she says, it will pave the way for dozens of cases to proceed across the country against the industry.

SOKOL: It's never been held to account in this way in this country. It's largely wielded such tremendous economic and political might that it's never had to face a threat quite like this.

HERSHER: The Supreme Court will announce its decision later this year.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.