R.I. suit against ‘Big Oil’ to remain in state court after Supreme Court declines case

PROVIDENCE – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a petition by 21 fossil fuel companies seeking to move a case filed against them by former R.I. Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin to federal court, paving the way for a trial in R.I. Superior Court. 

First filed in 2018 by Kilmartin, the action made Rhode Island the first state to bring forth a climate change lawsuit against the 21 major fossil fuel companies, including Chevron Corp., Shell Oil Products Co. and Exxon Mobil Corp., alleging repeated violations of the state’s Environmental Rights Act that adversely harmed Rhode Island’s public resources.

Monday’s decision rejecting the arguments in favor of federal authority marks the third setback for the fossil fuel companies since 2022. In May, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the suit should be remanded to state court. This was followed by another ruling by the same court denying a petition for a panel review of the May decision. 

State courts are widely considered by legal experts to be more favorable to plaintiffs. The oil companies have sought to force state and local governments to pursue lawsuits alleging climate damage in federal court, arguing their claims are preempted by federal law. 

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In a statement Monday, R.I. Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said these companies “undertook a decades-long campaign of deceit in refuting the scientific knowledge generally accepted at the time… [And] failed in their duty to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm that could result from the ordinary use of their products,” including rising sea levels and other damage to public resources. 

Neronha said the suit was originally filed in state court “because that is the traditional and proper forum to hold corporations accountable for deceiving and failing to warn consumers about their products’ dangerous impacts.” 

The suit seeks a monetary judgment holding the companies liable for “knowingly concealing” that its products led to environmental damage. 

“After decades of climate change deception by the fossil fuel defendants, and now nearly half a decade of delay tactics in our lawsuit to hold them accountable for it, our residents, workers, businesses, and taxpayers are ready for their day in court,” Neronha said. “Now that the Supreme Court has affirmed the decisions of dozens of federal judges across the country, it is time to prepare for trial.” 

The ruling follows a 2022 multimillion-dollar settlement between the state of Rhode Island and Shell, Sunoco LP and Citgo Petroleum Corp. after a seven-year legal battle over contamination from the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, which is banned under state law but is still found in groundwater throughout the state, according to the R.I. Attorney General’s Office. 

A hearing on the pending lawsuit had previously been scheduled for May 24 before R.I. Superior Court Judge William E. Carnes Jr. in Newport County. However, Neronha’s spokesperson Brian Hodge said Monday that in light of Monday’s ruling a new hearing will be determined later. 

Christopher Allen is a PBN staff writer. You may contact him at Allen@PBN.com.