Rhode Is­land files first state law­suit over cli­mate change

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY VA­LERIE RICHARD­SON

Rhode Is­land filed a land­mark cli­mate law­suit last week against the world’s largest petroleum com­pa­nies, mak­ing the state the first to seek dam­ages to cover what is says are costs of global warming in what had pre­vi­ously been a le­gal fight waged ex­clu­sively by lib­eral lo­cal­i­ties.

Gov. Gina Rai­mondo, joined by At­tor­ney Gen­eral Peter F. Kil­martin and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse — all Democrats — made the an­nounce­ment at the Nar­ra­gansett Sea Wall, part of a 400-mile coast­line stretch that she said makes Rhode Is­land “more vul­ner­a­ble to the ef­fects of cli­mate change than any other state.”

“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,” Mr. Kil­martin said in a state­ment. “The de­fen­dants have con­trib­uted greatly to the in­creased costs as­so­ci­ated with cli­mate change and, as such, should be held legally re­spon­si­ble for those dam­ages.”

The state’s “pub­lic nui­sance” claim, which seeks po­ten­tially bil­lions of dol­lars to cover in­fra­struc­ture costs as­so­ci­ated with an an­tic­i­pated sea level rise, fol­lows more than a dozen sim­i­lar law­suits filed by pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ties in coastal ar­eas of Cal­i­for­nia, New York and Wash­ing­ton, as well as in land­locked Colorado.

Rhode Is­land’s ac­tion raised spec­u­la­tion that other Demo­crat-led states may turn to the le­gal sys­tem to strike a blow against the oil and gas in­dus­try in the name of cli­mate change, much as they did in 2016 with AGs United for Clean Power, a 17-state coali­tion that sought to pur­sue petroleum com­pa­nies and their de­fend­ers.

That ef­fort led to on­go­ing cli­mate fraud in­ves­ti­ga­tions by New York and Mas­sachusetts against Exxon Mo­bil as well as ac­cu­sa­tions that lib­eral state pros­e­cu­tors had abused their pub­lic author­ity by tar­get­ing po­lit­i­cal foes.

Rhode Is­land’s move sur­prised in­dus­try on­look­ers in at least one re­spect: The law­suit was filed af­ter the strat­egy was dealt a ma­jor de­feat when a fed­eral judge threw out cli­mate change com­plaints lodged by San Fran­cisco and Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, against the five largest in­vestor-owned oil com­pa­nies.

U.S. Dis­trict Court Judge Wil­liam Al­sup cited the “world­wide pos­i­tives of the en­ergy” ver­sus the much-de­bated role of fos­sil fu­els in caus­ing global warming, con­clud­ing that the is­sue was best ad­dressed by the ex­ec­u­tive branch, diplo­matic com­mu­nity and Con­gress.

“Those dan­gers are world­wide. Their causes are world­wide. The ben­e­fits of fos­sil fu­els are world­wide,” Judge Al­sup said in his rul­ing. “The prob­lem de­serves a so­lu­tion on a more vast scale than can be sup­plied by a dis­trict judge or jury in a pub­lic nui­sance case.”

In March, an­other judge moved law­suits filed by three Cal­i­for­nia ju­ris­dic­tions — San Ma­teo and Marin coun­ties, and Im­pe­rial Beach — back to state court in what was seen as a vic­tory for cities and coun­ties seek­ing to have the cases re­viewed un­der more fa­vor­able state law.

Other com­mu­ni­ties with pend­ing cli­mate law­suits in­clude New York City; Boul­der, Colorado; King County, Wash­ing­ton; and in Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Cruz and Rich­mond.

In its com­plaint, filed in state Su­pe­rior Court, Rhode Is­land ac­cused 21 fos­sil-fuel firms of know­ingly con­tribut­ing to cli­mate change, re­sult­ing in “cat­a­strophic con­se­quences” for the state.

Those in­clude “ex­treme weather” events such as Su­per­storm Sandy in 2012 and the 2010 spring flood­ing.

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

In­fra­struc­ture in need of up­grades or re­pairs in­clude the elec­tric grid, bridges, roads, ports, waste­water man­age­ment fa­cil­i­ties, beaches and dams, the fil­ing stated.

The com­pa­nies named in the Rhode Is­land com­plaint in­clude Chevron, Exxon Mo­bil, BP PLC, Shell, Citgo, Cono­coPhillips, Marathon Oil and Royal Dutch Shell.

Lind­sey de la Torre, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the man­u­fac­tur­ing ac­count­abil­ity project at the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Man­u­fac­tur­ers, called for politi­cians and lawyers to “put an end to this friv­o­lous litigation” and pointed out that no such cli­mate nui­sance claims have ever suc­ceeded.

“Tax­payer re­sources should not be used for base­less law­suits that are de­signed to en­rich trial lawyers and grab head­lines for politi­cians,” she said in a state­ment. “This abuse of our le­gal sys­tem does noth­ing to ad­vance mean­ing­ful so­lu­tions, which man­u­fac­tur­ers are fo­cused on ev­ery day.”

Exxon Mo­bil has threat­ened to sue the Cal­i­for­nia lo­cal­i­ties, point­ing out that many of them failed to dis­close the cli­mate change threat in their bond of­fer­ings to in­vestors.

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