Rhode Island goes after 21 fossil fuel companies over climate change impacts

"Here we are, the smallest state... taking on the biggest, most powerful corporate polluters."

Castle Hill lighthouse in Newport, Rhode Island. (Credit: Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Castle Hill lighthouse in Newport, Rhode Island. (Credit: Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has announced a lawsuit against 21 of the biggest fossil fuel companies over their contribution to climate change. The lawsuit seeks to hold the companies — including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell — liable for knowingly contributing to climate change and its catastrophic impacts on the state. It is the first state to launch such a climate lawsuit.

“We have too much to lose, be it land, the environment, or state tax dollars,” said Kilmartin during a press briefing. Standing by the Narraganset sea wall, he pointed to it, saying with dramatic sea level rise and stronger storm surges, the surrounding neighborhood will be “inundated, destroyed, virtually wiped out.”

Rhode Island has more than 400 miles of shoreline and has a strong marine and fishing industry, along with coastal tourism that’s vital to the state’s economy. All of this is therefore highly vulnerable to the damaging impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, the attorney general said. Record rains in 2010, for example, caused devastating flooding in the state. Two years later, Superstorm Sandy hit.

In filing the lawsuit on July 2 with the Rhode Island Superior Court, the state joins a slew of cases filed within the last year by cities and counties in California, New York, and Colorado.


Like other lawsuits, Rhode Island’s case argues that the oil companies have caused a public nuisance by creating and contributing to climate change. They “failed to adequately warn customers, consumers, regulators, and the general public to the known and foreseeable risks,” Kilmartin said. The lawsuit seeks to make the fossil fuel companies pay for the impacts of climate change to the state.

The companies “have known for nearly a half century that unrestricted production and use of their fossil fuel products create greenhouse gas pollution that warms the planet and changes our climate,” the lawsuit reads. “They have known for decades that those impacts could be catastrophic and that only a narrow window existed to take action before the consequences would be irreversible.”

Despite that awareness, the companies have “engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their knowledge of those threats, discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence, and persistently create doubt.”

ExxonMobil, for instance, knew in the late 1970s about how burning fossil fuels would cause greenhouse gas emissions to rise and temperatures to go up. Shell knew as early as the 1980s.

And yet, said Kilmartin, these same companies have taken steps to “protect their own assets from rising sea levels.”


Rhode Island’s lawsuit comes just a week after a California judge threw out two lawsuits filed by Oakland and San Francisco which sought damages to help pay for current and future climate impacts to these cities.

The judge ruled that the court wasn’t the place to settle the issue — a setback that clearly didn’t deter Rhode Island from pushing forward with a similar lawsuit.

“I know there are some who will question the ability of lil’ old Rhode Island to take on these international behemoths,” said Kilmartin. “For a very long time there’s been a misconception that Big Oil was too big to take on. But here we are, the smallest state… taking on the biggest most powerful corporate polluters,” he continued. “Because its the right thing to do.”

“Political rhetoric and partisanship will not change science,” he added. “It’s not a political question. It belongs in the courts where facts and evidence can be presented.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), attending the press conference, emphasized that going to court was in fact the best way to address this issue because the oil companies have congress “locked up” with their political influence. As the state’s former Attorney General (from 1999-2003), Whitehouse pursued a public nuisance case against the lead paint industry. And it was during this time too that others were suing Big Tobacco for lying about the health impacts of its product.


Critics in the past questioned the strategy of taking Big Tobacco to court, Kilmartin said; they said that the industry “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.”