A Rhode Island climate lawsuit may get a boost from new Shell Oil documents revealedA lawsuit filed against Shell in Rhode Island about climate risks at the Providence Terminal may get a boost from newly revealed company documents. Photo credit: Wikimedia

By Karen Savage

In a recently revealed internal document, Shell Oil acknowledged in 1988 the need to “defend against a sea level rise” and other impacts of climate change. That document could now play a major role in a climate change-related lawsuit currently pending against the company.

The acknowledgment came in a company report entitled “The Greenhouse Effect,” which was marked confidential but is among 38 documents recently unearthed by Jelmer Mommers, a climate and energy journalist for the Dutch news organization De Correspondent. It contains information directly relevant to a suit filed against the company last year in federal court in Rhode Island by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which alleged Shell has failed to protect the Providence Terminal from the impacts of sea level rise.

“It’s essentially an admission on Shell’s part that the risks we’ve identified in our case are real and imminent,” said Bradley Campbell, president of the CLF, which filed the lawsuit against the oil giant last August.

In the suit, CLF alleges that Shell has failed to account for climate-related impacts that will threaten the Providence Terminal, including rising seas, increases in the intensity of heavy rainfall and more extreme weather events.

Specifically, CLF argues that Shell is violating the conditions of its Clean Water Act permits by failing to prevent and adequately monitor unlawful discharges of pollution into the river and by failing to adequately plan for increasing amounts of stormwater runoff caused by climate change.

“Preparation for spills and other releases of hazardous substances is especially important at the Providence Terminal given its vulnerability to coastal flooding caused by sea level rise, increased and/or more intense precipitation, increased magnitude and frequency of storm events, and increased magnitude and frequency of storm surges – all of which will become, and are becoming, worse as a result of climate change,” said CLF in the suit, adding that public records indicate the facility’s stormwater drainage and treatment system cannot effectively handle large precipitation events.

Shell filed a motion to dismiss in January, saying CLF’s claims about the risks are “highly speculative, remote or hypothetical” and “wholly unrelated” to the company.

The newly revealed “The Greenhouse Effect” report, however, appears to support CLF’s contention that Shell has known these risks for decades and they are far from speculative or hypothetical. The report was based on a study completed in 1986 and lists several climate change-related implications for the energy industry. At the top of the list are consequences to coastal facilities that can be expected from rising seas.

Sea levels have already risen about 8 inches compared to pre-industrial times, dramatically increasing storm surge and flooding from storms like Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan. It has dramatically increased the frequency of everyday high-tide flooding in cities all along the U.S. coastline.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that if emissions continue on their current pace, sea levels could rise another 39 inches by 2100. By 2050, as many as 26 major U.S. cities will face an “emerging flooding crisis.”

Shell’s report acknowledged these risks to its business and facilities. “Direct operational consequences can be expected from a rising sea level, impacting offshore installations, coastal facilities and operations (e.g. platforms, harbors, refineries, depots) with an uncertain magnitude,” Shell’s report said.

The report also shows that Shell estimated it was responsible for at least 4 percent of total global carbon emissions in 1984. That figure could be used to counter Shell’s contention that Rhode Island’s climate impacts are unrelated to the company.

Shell, which is based in the Netherlands, is also being sued by a group in that country, Friends of the Earth Netherlands / Milieudefensie, based largely on the content of the documents unearthed by Mommers. That group seeks to compel the company to adhere to the Netherlands’ goals as promised in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith said the company’s position on climate change has been a matter of public record for decades.

“We strongly support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future, while also extending the economic and social benefits of energy access to everyone,” said Smith, who added that both government policy and cultural change are needed to transition to a low-carbon economy.  

“It requires cooperation between all segments of society, not lawsuits that masquerade as climate action and impede the collaboration needed for meaningful change,” he said.

Shell argued in its motion to dismiss that CLF should address its concerns with state regulatory agencies, not with a federal lawsuit. It said CLF should “defer to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which is statutorily mandated to account for potential impacts from climate change.”

But Campbell said the admission by Shell in “The Greenhouse Effect” is further proof that the oil industry knew decades ago that climate change was occurring and that their facilities—and the communities around them—are at risk.

“The documents reinforce one of the central contentions in our case against Shell,” Campbell said. “Shell has long recognized that good engineering practice and their legal duty of care require them to prepare their facilities for climate impacts.”

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