Rhode Island Opens Up New Front in Climate Change Lawsuit Offensive

New legal challenge comes just one week after similar federal case is dismissed

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July 3, 2018

The Rhode Island attorney general filed a lawsuit in state court against ExxonMobil (Exxon), BP, Shell, and others, arguing that the energy producers knew their product contributed to climate change, but "engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge" of possible resulting threats.

Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin asked for a jury trial in the Monday filing, seeking compensatory and punitive damages he believes the state "has sustained and will sustain" as a result.

The case bears similarities to a handful of other cases from around the nation, most of which originate from governments that have oceanfront boundaries.

One of those lawsuits was tossed out of federal court in California just last week.

In a ruling issued on the previous Monday, Judge William Alsup acknowledged the science of climate change, but nevertheless dismissed a lawsuit brought by the cities of Oakland and San Francisco that sought to force a handful of energy companies to create "abatement funds" to pay for damages.

The National Association of Manufacturers was quick to react to the new filing from Rhode Island.

"Lawsuits targeting manufacturers do nothing to address climate change, and as history has demonstrated, these lawsuits stand little chance in the courtroom," said Lindsey de la Torre, executive director of NAM's Manufacturers' Accountability Project. "Just last week, U.S. District Judge William Alsup dismissed similar lawsuits filed by San Francisco and Oakland, writing, 'No plaintiff has ever succeeded in bringing a nuisance claim based on global warming.'"

"It's time for politicians and trial lawyers to put an end to this frivolous litigation. Taxpayer resources should not be used for baseless lawsuits that are designed to enrich trial lawyers and grab headlines for politicians. This abuse of our legal system does nothing to advance meaningful solutions, which manufacturers are focused on every day."

Representatives from Exxon and Shell did not return a request for comment, while a representative for BP indicated the company would not be commenting on the case at this time.

Massachusetts and New York have both launched fraud investigations into the energy producers, but Rhode Island says their lawsuit "is a first because no other state has sued fossil-fuel companies for climate change impacts," according to the Providence Journal.

The court filing also shows that the state is being represented in part by lawyers from the firm Sher Edling, LLP, which is also representing local governments in cases in California, such as the city of San Mateo and Marin County. Those lawsuits are being heard in state court, unlike the San Francisco and Oakland cases, which were in federal court.

Requests for comment from Sher Edling attorneys were not returned.

Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse praised the lawsuit on Twitter.

The Democratic senator previously penned an op-ed in the Washington Post in 2015 arguing that the energy companies were analogous to tobacco companies of the 1960s and 1970s, saying they knew cigarettes caused cancer but ignored the science.

Although it has been dismissed, the suit by San Francisco and Oakland may yet result in another kind of headache for the cities.

Not long after those cities filed their suits, a free-market think tank asked the SEC to investigate them for bond fraud.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute studied bonds issued by the two north California cities, and said the investment offerings did not detail the "catastrophic" impacts that they were predicting in their lawsuit against the energy companies.

"In their suits against oil and gas companies, California's cities and counties claim that there are clear risks from manmade climate change," CEI's general counsel Sam Kazman said in a statement. "But when it comes to selling their municipal bonds to the public, they say just the opposite. This is hypocritical double-talk, and it may well violate federal law against securities fraud."