Rhode Island Attorney General Kilmartin Files Lawsuit Against Fossil Fuel Companies for Costs and Consequences of Climate Change
The “Ocean State” Becomes First State to Challenge Big Oil in
Court for Knowingly Putting Rhode Island Infrastructure,
Businesses, Families, and Ecosystems in Jeopardy
PROVIDENCE, RI – Faced with growing effects of climate change and the costs related to protecting the State, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin filed a complaint today in Providence County Superior Court suing the world’s largest fossil fuel companies for knowingly contributing to climate change and the catastrophic consequences to the State and its residents, economy, eco-system, and infrastructure.
Rhode Island, known as the Ocean State, boasts more than 400 miles of shoreline, historic communities, robust marine and fishing industry, and a long commitment to policies to protect and preserve the State’s vast natural resources and environment.
“Rhode Island is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate changes that is now on our doorstep with sea level rise and an increase in severe weather patterns, as seen by the extensive damage caused by storms in the past several years, including Super Storm Sandy and the floods of 2010,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin. “The defendants’ actions for the past several decades are already having and will continue to have a significant and detrimental impact on our infrastructure, economy, public health, and our eco-systems, and will force the State to divert already-limited resources to mitigate the effects of climate change, thereby diminishing resources for other vital programs and services.”
“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 – taking on some of the biggest corporate polluters in the world,” he added. “The defendants have contributed greatly to the increased costs associated with climate change, and as such, should be held legally responsible for those damages.”
Naming 21 defendants, including ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell, the lawsuit seeks to hold the defendants accountable for damages associated with both sea rise level and changes to the water cycle above and below the ocean’s surface, known as the hydrologic cycle, caused by greenhouse gas pollution from these companies’ products. Rhode Island is the first state to file such a lawsuit against the defendants.
The State alleges in the complaint that the defendants:
- Created, contributed to, and assisted in creating conditions in the State of Rhode Island that constitute a public nuisance;
- Failed to adequately warn customers, consumers, regulators, and the general public of the known and foreseeable risks posed by their products, and the consequences that inevitably follow from their use;
- Refuted the scientific knowledge generally accepted at the time, advanced pseudo-scientific theories of their own, and developed public messaging that prevented reasonable consumers from forming an expectation that fossil fuel products would cause grave climate changes;
- Failed in their duty to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm that could result from the ordinary use of their products;
- Caused the sea level rise that has encroached upon the land;
- Interfered with the use and enjoyment of public trust resources within Rhode Island; and
- Violated the State’s Environmental Rights Act by polluting, impairing, and destroying natural resources of the State.
Greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuel companies is warming the oceans and atmosphere, causing sea levels to rise, and increasing the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, extreme precipitation events and severe storms.
Climate change impacts as a result of the defendants’ actions have already cost the State of Rhode Island taxpayers significantly for the repair and maintenance of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects, mitigation and remediation of the State’s shoreline, and wetlands, and the rebuilding of coastal structures, among other costs, and will continue to do so as the effects from climate change continue.
“We have 400 miles of coastline in Rhode Island. Rhode Island is more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than nearly any other state. The climate is changing and we need to take action now for the long term. In recent years, Rhode Island has made great strides and we’re standing up together against the Trump Administration’s actions that threaten our ocean, our Bay, our forests and our open space. We’re home to the nation’s first off-shore wind farm and since 2014, we’ve added more than 5,000 green jobs to our economy,” said Governor Raimondo. “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. I applaud Attorney General Kilmartin for taking action against oil companies. My team has worked closely with his from the start, and I pledge to offer any and all assistance necessary to make those responsible for climate change pay.”
“The Ocean State has so much at stake in the fight against climate change,” said U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. “I commend Attorney General Kilmartin for his leadership in holding some of the world’s most powerful corporations responsible for the damage they’re inflicting on our coastal economy, infrastructure, and way of life.”
“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 U.S. Congressman James Langevin, the Energy Task Force Chair of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. “Rising sea levels, increased storm strength and warmer temperatures threaten our way of life in the Ocean State. I commend Attorney General Kilmartin for this bold action to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their contributions to this crisis.”
“Climate change presents one of the greatest challenges facing our country and the entire world. If President Trump will not meet this challenge head on, it’s critical that states and cities fill the void,” said U.S. Congressman David Cicilline. “Rhode Island has always stood at the forefront of protecting our planet’s beautiful natural resources. I’m proud that today we are once again leading our country forward on this issue.”
The complaint asserts significant to severe impacts to Rhode Island as a direct result of the defendants’ action, including:
Sea level rise, changes to the hydrologic cycle, and increased air and ocean temperatures resulting from anthropogenic climate change have and will result in injury to public, industrial, commercial, and residential assets within the State either directly, or through secondary and tertiary impacts that cause the State to expend resources in resiliency planning, responding to these impacts, and repairing infrastructure damage; lost revenue due to decreased economic activity in the State; injury to natural resources which the State holds in trust for the use and enjoyment of the people of Rhode Island; and cause the State to suffer other injuries.
Among the assets and natural resources in the State that have and/or will be injured as a result of climate change are:
Roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure:
According to recent analysis, 175 miles of roadway will be exposed with seven feet of sea level rise. In a storm surge event with seven feet of sea level rise, 573 miles of roadway will be exposed. In addition, 90 bridges across the state are vulnerable to seven feet of sea level rise and 163 bridges are vulnerable in a storm surge event plus seven feet of sea level rise. Rising temperatures and extreme weather also contribute to the degradation of roads and bridges, thereby increasing repair and maintenance costs.
One of the most direct energy security impacts of major storm events is power outages. Power outages result in direct costs to repair damaged or flooded infrastructure or downed poles and wires and to restore service and indirect costs such as lost business and tax revenue and health impacts from loss of electricity and air conditioning. Increased extreme heat days also put stress on the state’s electricity grid, by requiring increased air conditioning. State agencies are playing key roles in overseeing energy assurance and resiliency in the state.
Maritime transportation, including the Port of Providence and Port of Galilee, serves a critical role in the Rhode Island economy, providing products, raw materials, and revenue from scrap metal and other exports. Numerous ancillary businesses depend on the ports’ functionality. The Port of Providence alone generated more than $200 million in economic benefits for the region and over 2,400 jobs. The commercial fishing industry generates around $200 million in annual sales and supports about 7,000 jobs. Impacts of climate change, including flooding from a major storm and associated damage and closure of fisheries and loss of profitable aquatic species, have and will cause both short and long-term disruptions in the state economy causing the state to lose revenue
The state has 668 dams, 96 of which are classified as “high hazard,” meaning that failure or mis-operation may result in loss of human life, and 81 of which are classified as “significant hazard,” meaning failure can cause major economic loss, disrupt critical facilities or infrastructure, or detriment public’s health, safety or welfare
Climate change has and will subject beaches to increased storm surge, erosion, coastal flooding and sea level rise. The State owns several beaches open for public use and enjoyment. Because bacteria grows more quickly in warm water, warming ocean temperatures will result in increased beach closures. As a result of climate change the State will lose real property to inundation and flooding and revenue from decreased tourism and use of state beaches.
Sea level rise and increased summer and fall droughts will stress Rhode Island’s water supply. As decreased seasonal precipitation increases reliance on and diminishes replenishment of groundwater, sea level rise will result in saltwater intruding into coastal groundwater and wells, contaminating drinking water resources
The State is home to nineteen major wastewater treatment facilities and over 250 pumping stations to transport sewage to these systems. Most of these wastewater systems are located in floodplains to take advantage of gravity fed flows. Sea level rise, and increased flooding and storms associated with climate change will exceed infrastructure capacity, overwhelming and submerging infrastructure, including pipelines, wastewater pumping stations and treatment systems
A study evaluating the State’s 21 coastal communities found that with 3 feet of sea level rise, over 300 homes will be in the inundation zone. With 7 feet of sea level rise, over 4,000 occupied residential units and 800 commercial units would be within the inundation zone
The State also alleges that the defendants have known for decades that business-as-usual combustion of their products could be “severe” or even “catastrophic,” according to Exxon’s own internal memos. Some of the defendants were in fact so certain of the threat that some even took steps to protect their own assets from rising seas and more extreme storms, and they developed new technologies to profit from drilling in a soon-to-be ice-free Arctic. Yet instead of taking steps to reduce the threat to others, the industry actually increased production while spending billions on public relations, lobbying, and campaign contributions that have led to the consequences today in Rhode Island.
According to the complaint:
Defendants have known for nearly 50 years that greenhouse gas pollution from their fossil fuel products has a significant impact on the Earth’s climate and sea levels….Instead of working to reduce the use and combustion of fossil fuel products, lower the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, minimize the damage associated with continued high use and combustion of such products, and ease the transition to a lower carbon economy, Defendants concealed the dangers, sought to undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation, and engaged in massive campaigns to promote the ever-increasing use of their products at ever greater volumes.