'Big Win' for Rhode Island in Court Battle to Make Polluters Pay for Consequences of Climate Crisis
In what one advocate called a “big win” for climate liability litigation, a federal judge on Monday remanded Rhode Island’s lawsuit targeting 21 fossil fuel giants to state court, where the oil and gas companies are more likely to be forced to pay for their significant contributions to the global climate crisis.
Last July, Rhode Island became the first state in the country to file suit against dirty energy companies—including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell—seeking to hold them accountable for knowingly contributing to a climate emergency that is “causing catastrophic consequences to Rhode Island, our economy, our communities, our residents, our ecosystems.”
The Ocean State accused fossil fuel producers of “externalizing the responsibility” for the consequences of the human-caused crisis—such as sea level rise, drought, extreme precipitation, and heatwaves, and the damage those events cause—by expecting taxpayers to foot the bill.
The case was filed in state court. In response, the fossil fuel industry employed a strategy of trying to move climate liability suits filed by municipalities or states to federal court, where the companies are more likely to win—in part because of differences in case law.
Judge William Smith of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island delivered a blow to the industry’s strategy in his Monday ruling (pdf). Smith wrote that “because there is no federal jurisdiction under the various statutes and doctrines adverted to by defendants, the court grants the state’s motion to remand.”
“Climate change is expensive, and the state wants help paying for it,” the judge wrote. He also pointed out that the defendants, collectively, “have extracted, advertised, and sold a substantial percentage of the fossil fuels burned globally since the 1960s.”
“This activity has released an immense amount of greenhouse gas into the Earth’s atmosphere, changing its climate and leading to all kinds of displacement, death (extinctions, even), and destruction,” he continued. “What is more, defendants understood the consequences of their activity decades ago, when transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy would have saved a world of trouble.”
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