U.S. Supreme Court clears way for Rhode Island climate suit to remain in state court

By: - April 24, 2023 3:46 pm

The Polar Pioneer, an oil drilling rig owned by Shell Oil, arrives on May 14, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. The rig was part of a fleet leading a controversial oil-exploration effort off Alaska’s North Slope. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up an appeal from 21 oil and gas companies seeking to move a Rhode Island lawsuit filed five years ago to federal court.

That means Rhode Island v. Shell Oil Co. will be heard in Rhode Island Superior Court, an outcome that drew praise from Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha. 

“Today’s decision marks an important milestone in the proceedings as the court has again rejected an attempt by major fossil fuel company defendants to move the case to federal court and instead kept the case in state court, where it rightly belongs,” Neronha said in a statement.

Neronha’s predecessor, former Attorney General Peter Kilmartin filed the suit in 2018, making Rhode Island the first state in the nation to bring a lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for their role in climate change. Kilmartin sought compensation for damages associated with both sea level rise and interfering with the use and enjoyment of public trust resources — all of which violate the state’s Environmental Rights Act.

The lawsuit claimed that oil companies such as Shell failed to adequately warn of the foreseeable risks posed by their products, undertook a campaign of deceit in refuting the scientific knowledge generally accepted at the time, and failed to prevent foreseeable harm that could result from the ordinary use of their products.

In addition to the lead defendant, other companies include ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, Speedway, 66, and Citgo.

In May 2022, the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a federal court decision ruling that Rhode Island’s case be remanded to state court. Then, several months later, the First Circuit denied the fossil fuel companies’ appeal. In December 2022, the fossil fuel companies appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to move the case from state to federal courts. The state of Rhode Island responded last February.

Neronha in a statement said the case belongs in the jurisdiction of the state court system.

“That is the traditional and proper forum to hold corporations accountable for deceiving and failing to warn consumers about their products’ dangerous impacts,” Neronha said.

Similar lawsuits against oil and gas companies were also filed by municipalities or counties in Maryland, Colorado, California, and Hawaii.

“After decades of climate change deception by the fossil fuel defendants, and now nearly half a decade of delay tactics in our lawsuit to hold them accountable for it, our residents, workers, businesses and taxpayers are ready for their day in court,” Neronha said.


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.