Rhode Island Sues Oil Companies Over Climate Change, First State in Wave of Lawsuits

The lawsuit blames the burning of fossil fuels for contributing to sea level rise, extreme weather and warming oceans. The state's already seeing coastal damage.

Rhode Island has 400 miles of coastline, and it's facing sea level rise. Parts of Narragansett are at risk. Credit: Marc Choquette/CC-BY-2.0

“For a very long time, there has been this perception that ‘Big Oil’ was too big to take on, but here we are – the smallest state – taking on some of the biggest corporate polluters in the world,” Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said in announcing the lawsuit. Credit: Marc Choquette/CC-BY-2.0

This story also appeared in the Boston Globe.

Rhode Island on Monday became the first state to sue oil companies over the effects of climate change, filing a complaint seeking damages for the costs associated with protecting the state from rising seas and severe weather.

Standing atop a seawall in Narragansett, state Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin compared the case to the lawsuits filed decades ago against tobacco companies and said it would hold the companies—including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Royal Dutch Shell—accountable for harm they have caused.

"Big oil knew for decades that greenhouse gas pollution from their operations and their products were having a significant and detrimental impact on the earth's climate," he said. "Instead of working to reduce that harm, these companies chose to conceal the dangers, undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation and engage in massive campaigns to promote the ever increasing use of their products and ever increasing revenues in their pockets."

The lawsuit, filed in Providence/Bristol County Superior Court, names 14 oil and gas companies and some of their affiliates, saying they created conditions that constitute a public nuisance under state law and failed to warn the public and regulators of a risk they were well aware of. It follows a series of similar lawsuits filed by local jurisdictions around the country.

Rhode Island is known as the Ocean State—it has more than 400 miles of coastline—and officials stressed the risks that coastal communities face as a result of rising seas. Kilmartin noted that the area where he was standing could be underwater if a major storm were to hit later in the century, when the seas are several feet higher.

"As a direct and proximate consequence of Defendants' wrongful conduct described in this Complaint, average sea level will rise substantially along Rhode Island's coast; average temperatures and extreme heat days will increase; flooding, extreme precipitation events, such as tropical storms and hurricanes, and drought will become more frequent and more severe; and the ocean will warm and become more acidic," the lawsuit states.

It says Rhode Island is already seeing the effects, and taxpayers are left to pay the costs.

Shell released a statement to Reuters saying that "lawsuits that masquerade as climate action and impede the collaboration needed for meaningful change" were not the answer to climate change.

Latest in a Wave of Lawsuits

More than a dozen cities and counties in California, Colorado, New York and Washington have filed similar lawsuits against major fossil companies in recent months in attempts to hold them financially responsible for the effects of climate change. Many of those cases involve coastal communities—such as New York City and tiny Imperial Beach, California—that have seen the damage sea level rise can cause and are now looking for how to pay for protective infrastructure.

The fossil fuel industry has been fighting to have these cases dismissed or moved to federal court, where it faces better odds of having the cases thrown out.

That tactic succeeded last month, when a federal judge in California dismissed the lawsuits filed by San Francisco and Oakland. In his decision, U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote that the dangers of climate change are "very real" and that fossil fuel companies didn't dispute that burning their products causes it, but that the issue should be handled by Congress rather than in a federal liability lawsuit.

State courts, where other lawsuits are still being handled, may take a different view.

'A Greater Burden on States to Take Action'

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who spoke at the press conference announcing Rhode Island's lawsuit, said the courts are an appropriate venue.

"The fossil fuel industry is fond of saying, you're in the wrong forum, you shouldn't be going to the courts, you should be going to Congress," he said. "The reason they say that is because they have Congress locked up with their political power and their money and their influence."

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said the Trump administration's inaction on climate change means that states must do more.

"Given that we have a president in the White House who denies climate change and has pulled out of the Paris climate accord, it puts a greater burden on states to take action," she said. "If the federal government isn't going to do their job, we'll do it for them."

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