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Faced with the costs of climate change, R.I. sues fossil-fuel companies

“If the federal government isn’t going to do their job, we’ll do it for them,” Governor Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island said of the lawsuit.
Steven Senne/Associated Press/File
“If the federal government isn’t going to do their job, we’ll do it for them,” Governor Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island said of the lawsuit.

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

Standing atop a sea wall in Narragansett, state Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin compared the case to lawsuits filed decades ago against tobacco companies and said it would hold ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and others 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.”

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The lawsuit, filed in Providence/Bristol County Superior Court, names 14 oil and gas companies and their affiliates, alleging 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 similar lawsuits filed by local jurisdictions around the country.

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Rhode Island is known as the Ocean State — it has more than 400 miles of coastline — and officials stressed the risks 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.

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

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More than a dozen cities and counties in California, Colorado, New York, and Washington have sued major fossil-fuel companies. Many of the cases involve communities such as New York City and tiny Imperial Beach, Calif., that have seen the damage sea level rise causes and are looking to pay for protective infrastructure.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and her New York counterpart are pressing investigations into whether Exxon covered up the role its products have played in warming the planet.

The fossil-fuel industry has been fighting to have lawsuits against the companies dismissed or moved to federal court, where the odds of having the cases thrown out are better.

Last month, a federal judge in California dismissed suits filed by San Francisco and Oakland. US District Judge William Alsup wrote the dangers of climate change are “very real” and that fossil-fuel companies don’t deny burning their products causes it, but that the issue should be handled by Congress.

State courts may take a different view.

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Democratic US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who spoke at the news conference Monday 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 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 Governor Gina Raimondo said the Trump administration’s inaction means states must do more.

“If the federal government isn’t going to do their job, we’ll do it for them,” she said

InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that reports on climate, energy, and the environment.