The State of Rhode Island is playing the role of David, opposing its Goliath, by taking on the world’s big oil companies.
The state has initiated a legal battle against oil companies in Superior Court arguing that the use of oil has a direct impact on climate change, which in turn is affecting Rhode Island’s shoreline. The damage from climate change is an issue that hits close to home on Block Island, as there has been flooding, erosion and impact to the island’s beaches, coastline and ponds.
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin filed a lawsuit in Superior Court, the first of its kind in the nation, alleging the fuel companies knew of the harm their product would have on climate change. The lawsuit, which was spurred by Yale Law School Professor Harold Hongju Koh, seeks monetary damages, and to hold the oil companies responsible for environmental damage within the Ocean State. Koh prompted Kilmartin to file the lawsuit on referral from Gov. Gina Raimondo, who was a student of Koh’s at Yale.
Kilmartin told The Times that, “Rhode Island’s laws exist to protect our citizens and our environment when we are harmed by someone else’s actions. The fossil fuel companies have known since at least the late 1960s that their products would cause climate change and the exact kinds of consequences that are adversely affecting Rhode Island today. We have had to spend millions of dollars to protect our residents, workers, businesses, roads, and water treatment facilities from rising seas and other consequences tied to climate change, and it’s only going to get more expensive in the future. It’s not right to expect Rhode Island taxpayers to pick up the tab for damages knowingly caused by these fossil fuel companies.”
“We’re asking that these companies take responsibility for the damage they are causing in Rhode Island, damage that scientists tell us will continue to get worse in the future, and the costs that we have to incur to avoid or adapt to it,” noted Kilmartin. “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, the Ocean State, taking on the biggest, most powerful corporate polluters in the world. We recognize that we are taking on some very powerful entities, which are not afraid to pull out all the stops and throw up all sorts of obstacles. We expect that, and we are ready.”
“Block Island, like all of our coastal communities, is especially vulnerable to the economic effects of climate change, in particular sea level rise and an increase in severe weather, as seen by the extensive damage caused by storms in the past several years, including the floods in 2010 and Super Storm Sandy,” noted Kilmartin. “The town is correct to look ahead to the future damage that is likely to happen and to plan accordingly. Our focus was not to be the first state to file a lawsuit. Our focus was to prepare and file a strong complaint against these fossil-fuel companies, which we believe we have done.”
The AG’s office is working with Sher Edling, LLC, a San Francisco-based firm that has handled similar cases in California, and according to its website, “represents cities, public agencies, and businesses in high-impact, high-value environmental cases.” The State of Rhode Island will pay the firm for legal fees only if it is awarded damages from the case.