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Climate Liability Lawsuit Decision in Rhode Island a 'Welcome Sign' for Those Seeking Damages

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Pawtuxett River flooding on March 30, 2010 in Warwick, Rhode Island. National Guard troops were activated in Massachusetts and Rhode Island where a state of emergency was declared. Darren McCollester / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

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. 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."

"But instead of sounding the alarm, defendants went out of their way to becloud the emerging scientific consensus and further delay changes — however existentially necessary — that would in any way interfere with their multi-billion-dollar profits," Smith added. "All while quietly readying their capital for the coming fallout."

Ann Carlson — an environmental law professor at UCLA's Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment who has done pro-bono consulting for municipality cases — explained to Climate Liability News that "the district court's decision to send Rhode Island's case back to state court is important because what the oil companies are really after is dismissal of the case under federal law."

According to Carson, "They want a big substantive outcome — to get rid of the case altogether."

Rhode Island Democratic Attorney General Peter Neronha, who took over the state lawsuit filed by his predecessor, welcomed the judge's ruling. He said in a statement that "as the federal court recognized, the state's lawsuit contains no federal question or cause of action, rather, contains only state law causes of action regarding damage to Rhode Island's resources that are better suited to resolution in the state courts."

Smith's decision was also celebrated by Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, who told The Hill that "this is more bad news for Exxon and a welcome sign for taxpayers and local governments seeking just compensation for climate damages oil and gas companies knowingly caused."

"Big oil and gas producers are desperate to stay out of state courts where tobacco lost and and opioid manufacturers are on the ropes," said Wiles. "But now a third federal district court has ruled that state courts are where climate liability cases belong."

Summarizing the other two wins Wiles referenced, Climate Liability News reported that "a federal judge in Maryland recently remanded Baltimore's suit to state court and a group of California communities won a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria that their cases belong in state court, a decision under appeal to the Ninth Circuit."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.