While Rhode Island communities experienced extreme drought, torrential rain, and flash floods last year, the oil and gas companies pouring fuel on our climate crisis were raking in record profits.
Now, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, Rhode Island’s lawsuit seeking to make these polluters pay their fair share for the climate damages they’ve caused to our state is finally on a path toward trial. As the first state in the country to sue oil giants like ExxonMobil and Chevron, Rhode Island is leading the charge to hold fossil fuel companies accountable. Just as Big Tobacco and opioid manufacturers had to face the evidence that they knowingly harmed the public, it’s time for Big Oil to do the same.
For decades, oil companies have known their products would lead to rising sea levels, more severe weather, and dangerous environmental decline, yet they did nothing to change course or warn the public. Instead, these bad faith polluters launched a disinformation campaign to obscure the science of climate change and steal precious time to stabilize our environment and invest in energy transition, all in order to protect their own profits.
The evidence against Big Oil speaks for itself: Recently discovered internal documents, for example, revealed that oil giant Shell predicted that “civilisation could prove a fragile thing” without a rapid transition away from fossil fuels toward cleaner energy. That was in 1989. But just months ago, after announcing a record $40 billion in profits, Shell chose to scale back its renewable energy commitments and continue doubling down on fossil fuels investments.
Due to the perseverance of Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office, these polluters are now one step closer to facing the evidence of their deception in Rhode Island state court.
“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 following the Supreme Court’s decision. “It is time to prepare for trial.”
Taking oil companies to court won’t cause sea levels to recede and our warming world to cool down, and we still need legislators like myself and our congressional representatives to advance bold climate solutions. But our state’s lawsuit can secure some degree of justice for Rhode Island communities that have been stuck with the bill to clean up Big Oil’s mess for far too long. According to a report from the Center for Climate Integrity, Rhode Island will need to spend $2.9 billion by 2040 in order to protect our coasts from rising seas and worsening floods. It’s unacceptable to make our taxpayers foot the entire bill to protect us from climate change when the fossil fuel companies most responsible rake in record profits and continue to make the problem worse.
U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has been pushing to crack down on Big Oil’s profiteering and return some of the industry’s record-breaking profits to working class people. He has also pledged to lead efforts to continue investigating oil giants for their longtime public deception. Rhode Islanders should support these efforts.
In courts and in Congress, the Ocean State can be a leader in climate accountability. We can’t let fossil fuel companies continue to escape justice and avoid paying their fair share of the costs. At long last, it’s time for Rhode Island to put Big Oil on trial.
Rep. Terri Cortvriend is a Democrat who represents District 72 in Portsmouth and Middletown. She is one of the cofounders of the Aquidneck Island Climate Caucus.