R.I. Attorney General files lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for impact of climate change

Updated at 3:18 p.m.

R.I. ATTORNEY GENERAL Peter F. Kilmartin has filed a complaint against 21 fossil fuel companies for their alleged knowing contribution to climate change and sea-level rise, seeking to recoup some of the cost that climate change has on Rhode Island. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
R.I. ATTORNEY GENERAL Peter F. Kilmartin has filed a complaint against 21 fossil fuel companies for their alleged knowing contribution to climate change and sea-level rise, seeking to recoup some of the cost that climate change has on Rhode Island. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – R.I. Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin has filed a complaint in Providence County Superior Court, suing 21 of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies for knowingly contributing to climate change, the Attorney General’s office announced Monday.

The lawsuit seeks to hold the companies accountable for damages associated with both sea level rise and changes to the water cycle above and below the ocean’s surface, known as the hydrologic cycle.

The complaint alleges that the companies knowingly contributed to climate change, failed to warn customers, consumers, regulators and the general public, refuted scientific knowledge generally accepted at the time and created pseudo-scientific theories that prevented consumers from forming an expectation that fossil fuels would cause climate changes.

“Defendants concealed the dangers, sought to undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation and engaged in massive campaigns to promote the ever-increasing use of their products at ever greater volumes,” the complaint read.

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“As we face the threat of climate change, we need to build more resilient infrastructure and we need to hold the people and companies most responsible for climate change accountable,” said Gov. Gina M. Raimondo in a statement. “Working families shouldn’t have to pay for the willful ignorance of big oil, big gas and big coal companies. I applaud Attorney General Kilmartin for taking action against oil companies. My team has worked closely with his from the start, and I pledge to offer any and all assistance necessary to make those responsible for climate change pay.”

The governor also issued a climate preparedness report Monday, ahead of Kilmartin’s announcement of the details of the lawsuit. The report is a strategy that identifies actions that will protect Rhode Island against sudden, unexpected severe weather events and address underlying chronic stresses, such as rising sea levels and aging infrastructure.

The lawsuit also alleges that the fossil fuel companies named in the complaint violated the state’s Environmental Rights Act by polluting, impairing and destroying natural resources of the state.

“Rhode Island is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate changes that is now on our doorstep with sea level rise and an increase in severe weather patterns, as seen by the extensive damage caused by storms in the past several years, including Super Storm Sandy and the floods of 2010,” stated Kilmartin. “The defendants’ actions for the past several decades are already having and will continue to have a significant and detrimental impact on our infrastructure, economy, public health and our eco-systems, and will force the state to divert already-limited resources to mitigate the effects of climate change, thereby diminishing resources for other vital programs and services.”

The complaint alleges significant impacts on: roads, bridges and infrastructure; energy infrastructure; ports; dams; beaches; water supply; wastewater management; and coastal communities.

The Attorney General will try to recoup costs related to the following:

  • Sea level rise
  • Changes to the hydrologic cycle, and increased air and ocean temperatures resulting from anthropogenic climate change that have and will result in injury to public, industrial, commercial, and residential assets within the state either directly, or through secondary and tertiary impacts that cause the state to expend resources in resiliency planning, responding to these impacts, and repairing infrastructure damage
  • Lost revenue due to decreased economic activity in the state
  • Injury to natural resources which the state holds in trust for the use and enjoyment of the people of Rhode Island as well as any other injuries to the state

The complaint also alleges that the defendants knew of their products’ impact on the environment and subsequently took steps to protect their own assets from rising sea levels and extreme storms. The companies are alleged to also have developed new technologies to profit from drilling in the “soon-to-be ice free Arctic,” instead of taking steps to reduce the threat of climate change.

Kilmartin specifically cited internal memos from Exxon Mobil that illustrate how that the company was aware of the potential of “severe” or “catastrophic” impacts from the use of their products.

The lawsuit includes BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC, among other companies. Kilmartin’s office said that the lawsuit is the first of its kind.

“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,” he added. “The defendants have contributed greatly to the increased costs associated with climate change, and as such, should be held legally responsible for those damages.”

The Attorney General’s Office did not provide a specific estimate to the dollar figure for either the impact to Rhode island or the damages it is seeking in the complaint and was not immediately available for comment on the suit.

It was also unclear if Kilmartin expects other Attorneys General from around the nation to join him in his lawsuit against the fossil fuel companies.

All 21 companies named in the suit were not included in the press statement.

Following the lawsuit announcement, the National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization issued a statement denouncing the case as part of “the concerted, coordinated campaign being waged by plaintiffs’ lawyers, public officials, deep-pocketed foundations and other activists who have sought to undermine and weaken manufacturers in the United States.”

Lindsey de la Torre, executive director of NAM’s Manufacturers’ Accountability Project said in response to Rhode Island’s lawsuit, “Lawsuits targeting manufacturers do nothing to address climate change, and as history has demonstrated, these lawsuits stand little chance in the courtroom. Just last week, U.S. District Judge William Alsup dismissed similar lawsuits filed by San Francisco and Oakland, writing, ‘No plaintiff has ever succeeded in bringing a nuisance claim based on global warming.’”

NAM’s members include multiple defendants named in the Attorney General’s complaint.

Chris Bergenheim is the PBN web editor.

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