Rhode Island has experienced severe flooding linked to climate change-driven stormsRhode Island, battling climate change-driven extreme weather, filed the latest climate liability suit on Monday. Photo credit: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

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By Karen Savage

Rhode Island is suing 21 oil and gas companies, state attorney general Peter Kilmartin announced on Monday, becoming the first U.S. state to attempt to hold the industry responsible for climate change-driven damages.

“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, the Ocean State—taking on the biggest, most powerful corporate polluters in the world,” Kilmartin said, adding that Rhode Island has too much at stake not to sue.

The suit was filed in Bristol County Superior Court and alleges that the 21 companies—including oil giants Exxon, BP, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and others— knowingly contributed to climate change and failed to adequately warn Rhode Island citizens about the risks posed by their products.

The state alleges the companies’ actions caused sea level rise and violated state laws by polluting, impairing and destroying the state’s natural resources, interfering with the public’s ability to use and enjoy those resources.

Rhode Island has more than 400 miles of shoreline that includes historic communities and a robust marine and fishing industry.

“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. Working families shouldn’t have to pay for the willful ignorance of big oil, big gas and big coal companies,” said Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo.

Like similar suits by several municipalities in California, the suit raises state common law claims and was filed in state court. Last week, a U.S. District judge dismissed the liability suits by San Francisco and Oakland against five major oil companies that had been ordered from state court to federal court. The cities are considered likely to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Rhode Island’s complaint, Kilmartin said the state has suffered severe impacts due to climate change, caused by the defendant companies’ “willful, reckless, or wicked” conduct. He said the oil and gas companies acted with a “conscious disregard for the probable dangerous consequences of that conduct.”

The state is demanding companies take measures to stop further harm to the state and is seeking compensatory and punitive damages “in an amount reasonable, appropriate, and sufficient to punish these Defendants for the good of society and deter Defendants from ever committing the same or similar acts.”

Chevron spokesperson Braden Reddall said the state’s claims have no merit.

“Tackling the difficult international policy issues of climate change requires honest and constructive discussion. Using lawsuits to vilify energy providers is neither honest nor constructive,” said Reddall, adding that the courts have previously rejected such claims.

A spokesperson for Shell told Reuters, “lawsuits that masquerade as climate action and impede the collaboration needed for meaningful change” were not the answer to climate change.

The other defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rep. James Langevin of Rhode Island, who chairs the Energy Task Force of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, said rising sea levels, increased storm strength and warmer temperatures threaten the way of life in his state.

“Rhode Islanders have had a front row seat to the effects of a changing climate for years, effects that are only becoming more pronounced,” said Langevin.

Impacts of climate change—including increased flooding from major storms and sea level rise—have disrupted the state economy, including forcing fisheries to close and destroying the habitat of profitable aquatic species.

According to a 2017 assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sea level in Rhode Island is predicted to rise an estimated 9 feet, 10 inches by 2100.

“To put in perspective, we’ve had 10 inches (of sea level rise) during the last 90 years. We’re about to have 10 feet in the next 80 years,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) at an environmental business roundtable last year.

Kilmartin said he knows some will criticize the state’s decision.

“To those critics, I say: We have a fiduciary obligation to the citizens and taxpayers to hold big oil accountable for the damages they caused and, more importantly, we have a moral obligation to protect our natural resources, wildlife, our quality of life, and leave this Rhode Island a better place for future generations and put the planet before profits,” said Kilmartin.

“And, if I recall, back when Sen Whitehouse was attorney general, critics said the same thing about pursuing Big Tobacco—that they would crush the states and never be held accountable for the harms they caused. The critics were wrong then, and they will be wrong this time.”