Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has filed suit in state court against most of the largest oil companies in the world, claiming among other things that they have known the dangers posed by using their products for decades but failed to warn their customers adequately. Since Rhode Island is known as The Ocean State and is home to Narragansett Bay, one of the ten best protected harbors in the world, rising sea levels will likely cause residents of the state, who like to call themselves “Rhodies,” to pay higher taxes to fix the problems caused by climate change.
The suit makes Rhode Island the first US state to sue the oil companies for damages, although several US cities have done so previously. A federal judge in California recently dismissed a similar suit filed by San Francisco and Oakland, ruling their claim that the actions of the oil companies had created a public nuisance was unfounded. Rhode Island also makes a claim for damages under the doctrine of public nuisance but adds other grounds for relief, including breach of a duty to warn consumers of an unreasonably dangerous defect, infringement on resources held in public trust, and negligence. The entire 145-page complaint is online for those who enjoy reading dense, jargon-packed legalese.
“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 — taking on some of the biggest corporate polluters in the world,” Kilmartin said in a statement. Rhode Islanders are sensitive about being the smallest state in the union. Since Rhode Island is my home, I am used to the pejorative phrases people use — Little Rhody, The Biggest Little State In The Nation, among others.
We secretly revel in our diminutive size. We have a Little Compton but no Big Compton or even a Medium Size Compton. We have been the butt of jokes, including a famous Super Chicken episode about Rhode Island being stolen and towed out to sea. Nevertheless, thanks to the wisdom of the founding fathers, Rhode Island has exactly the same number of senators as California or Texas.
Shell, one of the named defendants, told Reuters in a statement, “Lawsuits that masquerade as climate action and impede the collaboration needed for meaningful change” were not the answer to climate change. The other companies did not respond to Reuters‘ requests for comment. Gee, I wonder what collaboration Shell is talking about, other than the well coordinated campaign by it and its colleagues to keep knowledge about the effects of using their products locked behind a welter of misinformation and lies bought and paid for by them for the past 40 years or more?
Are the courts the best way of dealing with global policy issues? Obviously not. Political figures should be the ones leading the charge, but since so many of them are beholden to the fossil fuel industry for their cushy positions, all we get from them are profiles in cowardice rather than leadership. And as
conservatives reactionaries tilt the court system further and further toward the right wing lunatic fringe, expecting the courts to do what politicians are supposed to do may be a false hope.
Still, we in Rhode Island are proud to be at the ramparts, banging on the gates of the temple, and demanding redress of grievances. It may be largely a symbolic gesture, but it is at least evidence that someone, somewhere is listening. Suits like this may not get the relief they ask for, but they put investors and boards of directors on notice that the gravy train of unending profits may be nearing the station. If that is all that comes of this suit, it will still mark a step forward in the clean energy revolution.