Rhode Island Sues Big Oil for Climate Damages

By NICHOLAS KUSNETZ/ecoRI News contributor

Rhode Island became the first state to sue oil companies over the effects of climate change, filing a complaint July 2 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 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 the 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 County Superior Court, names 14 oil and gas companies and their affiliates, claiming 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.

The Ocean States has some 420 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,” according to the lawsuit.

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.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who spoke at the July 2 press conference announcing the 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 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.”

Nicholas Kusnetz is a reporter for InsideClimate News.