R.I. attorney general goes after Big Oil

Source: Benjamin Hulac, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, July 6, 2018

The Rhode Island attorney general on Monday sued 21 major oil and gas companies over climate change, accusing them of worsening its risks and demanding they pay to repair the harm climate change has caused in the coastal state.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin (D) announced the lawsuit at a seaside wall in Narragansett, on the state’s southern edge, where he told a crowd that oil companies and their industry trade associations have deceived the public about climate change dangers for decades.

In the complaint, the state said the defendants have known since the 1960s that their products warm the Earth’s climate and raise its sea levels. And while the defendants raised their buildings and equipment to avoid rising waters, they sought to confuse the public about climate change and its perils, Rhode Island says.

“These companies chose to conceal the dangers,” Kilmartin said, adding that rising ocean levels already cost the state financially. “Corporate spin and deception cannot change science.”

The case appears to be the first filed by a state against multinational oil and gas companies in regard to climate change damages.

A handful of cities have sued some of the world’s biggest publicly traded companies since 2017, arguing in court their communities are worse off now than they were decades ago due to changing climate patterns. Those changes, they say, would not have happened without the operation of the companies they sued.

Last week, a federal judge in California threw out a lawsuit that city prosecutors for Oakland and San Francisco brought against Chevron Corp., BP PLC, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC (Climatewire, June 26).

Cities and counties elsewhere — in Colorado, New York and Washington state, among others — have filed comparable suits.

The five companies named as defendants in the California case appear again in this Rhode Island lawsuit, plus 16 more.

Noting the dismissal last week of the California suits, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Manufacturers, an industry group, said this lawsuit is a waste of time.

“Lawsuits targeting manufacturers do nothing to address climate change, and as history has demonstrated, these lawsuits stand little chance in the courtroom,” Lindsey de la Torre said in a statement.

On hand for Kilmartin’s announcement were Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D); Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Jim Langevin (D-R.I.); and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who as the state attorney general joined in a nationwide effort among attorneys general to sue the tobacco industry about concealing the dangers of its products.

“I know there are some that question the ability of little ol’ Rhode Island to take on these international behemoths,” Kilmartin said. The Ocean State, the country’s smallest, has 400 miles of shores. “The critics were wrong then,” Kilmartin said of the tobacco work, “and they will be wrong now.”

Raimondo, alluding to Washington, D.C., gridlock about addressing the expanding atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping emissions, said, “We’re going to use the legal route to hold these companies accountable.”