Growing Group of States Backs Rhode Island’s Climate Suit Vs. Big Oil

by | Jan 26, 2020

More than a dozen states filed an amicus brief on Friday supporting Rhode Island’s climate lawsuit against fossil fuel companies. The coalition of states supporting Rhode Island’s case is the largest yet, with Maine, Delaware, and Hawaii weighing in for the first time on litigation seeking to hold Big Oil accountable for climate change impacts. 

“The climate crisis is impacting Maine in a number of ways, from ocean temperatures affecting our fisheries to extreme weather damaging our infrastructure and costing taxpayers,” said Maine Attorney General Aaron M. Frey. “Big oil companies played a big role in creating this crisis and inhibiting an effective, evidence-based policy response. They should be held accountable for their actions.” 

Rhode Island is the first state to bring a climate lawsuit against major fossil fuel companies. The companies are appealing a decision remanding the case back to state court, where it was originally filed in July 2018. Appeals are also pending in similar climate lawsuits brought by municipalities, including two cases that were dismissed in federal district courts. The fossil fuel companies want the cases in federal courts, where they have historically had an easier path to dismissal, while the communities argue the cases arise under state law and belong in state courts. 

The 13 states supporting Rhode Island are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. 

The attorneys general say Rhode Island’s claims, such as nuisance and failure to warn, are state law tort claims that are widely applicable to manufacturers of harmful products. They cite litigation against opioid manufacturers as an example, noting that states and local governments are pursuing state law claims in those cases. “Just like with the opioid crisis, the consequences of climate change often are felt locally, and state and local governments play a critical role in crafting and implementing solutions,” the AGs’ brief states. 

In its suit, Rhode Island alleges that the major fossil fuel producing companies knowingly contributed to climate change and failed to warn regulators and the public about the harms of fossil fuel use. Instead, these companies questioned legitimate climate science to confuse the public and maintain their profits. The complaint argues that Big Oil should be liable for infrastructure-related damages resulting from their actions. 

“Whatever measures are undertaken, the cost of sea-level and temperature rise to state and local governments will be massive,” the states write in their brief. 

Most of these states have previously signed amicus briefs supporting climate lawsuits brought by a handful of California communities, New York City, and Baltimore. One brief filed in March last year in support of Oakland and San Francisco was signed by 10 states plus the District of Columbia. 

Hawaii was not part of that coalition that previously filed amicus briefs, but Hawaii Attorney General Clare E. Connors  did sign the brief supporting Rhode Island. Hawaii is joining as the local governments of Honolulu and Maui recently initiated lawsuits of their own against fossil fuel companies. 

It remains to be seen whether any of these states will join Rhode Island in suing fossil fuel companies. New York and Massachusetts have both sued ExxonMobil for misleading investors, and while New York’s case was unsuccessful, the Massachusetts case, which also contends the company misled consumers, will be one to watch this year.

The attorneys general of Maryland and California, two states where municipalities are already suing fossil fuel companies, have expressed interest in holding polluters accountable under state law. 

“Maryland, like other states, should have the right to pursue these fossil fuel polluters under state law, even when the danger to the environment and public health is widespread,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh. 

“Corporations promoted the use of fossil fuels that accelerate climate change and hurt our coastal states,” added California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “For the sake of our communities’ and our children’s futures, we cannot let polluters off the hook.” 

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Dana Drugmand is a freelance journalist specializing in climate change, clean energy, and citizen activism. She holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Law & Policy with a certificate in Climate Law from Vermont Law School.