Rhode Island’s attorney general is suing major oil companies in state court, over their role in causing climate change and inaction in mitigating its destructive effects. According to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, the state is in a uniquely vulnerable position when it comes to climate change, which is threatening infrastructure on its 400 miles of shoreline, as well as vital maritime industries such as fishing. The suit, filed Monday, was reported by The Hill.

“Rhode Island is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate changes that is now on our doorstep with sea level rise and an increase in severe weather patterns, as seen by the extensive damage caused by storms in the past several years, including Super Storm Sandy and the floods of 2010,” according to a statement by Kilmartin.

“The defendants’ actions for the past several decades are already having and will continue to have a significant and detrimental impact on our infrastructure, economy, public health, and our eco-systems, and will force the state to divert already-limited resources to mitigate the effects of climate change, thereby diminishing resources for other vital programs and services.”

The attorney general is arguing that the companies have created a public nuisance in Rhode Island by failing to warn consumers and regulators about the risks of fossil fuels, and had violated Rhode Island’s Environmental Rights Act by polluting and destroying the state’s natural resources. It was filed in Providence County Superior Court, and will seek compensatory and punitive damages as well as an order for the companies to pay abatement costs and disgorge profits.

A statement from Shell said that “lawsuits that masquerade as climate action and impede the collaboration needed for meaningful change” are not the right approach to combatting the problem.

The lawsuit marks the first time a state has sued oil companies over climate change. Defendants include Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Hess. Cities and counties have increasingly taken to the courts to hold such companies responsible. But in the first decision on these cases, lawsuits from San Francisco and Oakland were rejected by a federal judge last month. The judge said the courts were the wrong way to address the issue, but affirmed the validity of the science of climate change and the risks of fossil fuels. 

“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 his statement.

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