Energy & Environment

Puerto Rican towns sue major oil companies, alleging suppression of climate science

Associated Press/Alejandro Granadillo
A fallen tree hangs on electrical wires over a street, blown down by Hurricane Fiona, in Salinas, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, September 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Alejandro Granadillo)

Sixteen Puerto Rico municipalities filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against major oil companies, alleging companies like ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron colluded to suppress evidence of climate change that has devastated the island, including 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

The municipalities accused the defendants, who include Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and Arch Coal, of conspiring to conceal fossil fuels’ role in climate change. The lawsuit alleges the companies spent billions of dollars on a “fraudulent marketing scheme to convince consumers that their fossil fuel-based products did not–and would not–alter the climate, knowing full well the consequences of their combined carbon pollution on Puerto Rico.”

The defendants produced just over 40 percent of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions between 1965 and 2017, according to the lawsuit, and were aware emissions were associated with stronger storms dating back to at least 2017.

The complaint cites an internal 1998 memo from Shell predicting “violent” Atlantic storms hitting the east coast of the U.S., likely prompting class-action consumer lawsuits.

Puerto Rico in particular has become a “canary in the coal mine” for the impacts of climate change, the lawsuit alleges, citing the Global Climate Risk Index 2020, issued in 2019, which called the island the single country most affected by climate change. Warmer waters around the island have intensified the winds associated with tropical storms and hurricanes, such as Maria, which killed nearly 3,000 people on the island.

“While Puerto Rico is the ultimate victim and the first victim, it is not the last,” said Marc Grossman, a partner at Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman LLC, which is representing the plaintiffs. “We are investigating claims by municipalities all over the world coming to the realization that they, along with the rest of the planet, were duped by the fossil fuel industry and now live in grave danger of being the next Puerto Rico.”

Major fossil fuel companies have denied advance knowledge of the effects of climate change, including at a contentious House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing earlier this year.

Plaintiffs include the municipalities of Bayamón, Caguas, Loíza, Lares, Barranquitas,  Comerío, Cayey, Las Marías, Trujillo Alto, Vega Baja, Añasco,  Cidra,  Aguadilla, Aibonito, Morovis and Moca.

“Legal proceedings like this waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change,” Todd Spitler, a senior media relations adviser to Exxon, told The Hill. “ExxonMobil will continue to invest in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting society’s growing demand for energy.”

In a statement to The Hill, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, counsel for Chevron, called the lawsuit “a baseless distraction from the serious challenge of global climate change.”

“This lawsuit is one in a series of suits that attempt to punish a select group of energy companies for a challenge that is the result of worldwide conduct stretching back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution,” Boutros said. “These suits serve only to divert attention and resources away from the collaborative, global efforts that are critical to developing a meaningful solution to climate change.”

A ConocoPhillips spokesperson told The Hill the company does not comment on active litigation.

The Hill has also reached out to Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Arch Coal for comment.

–Updated at 11:39 p.m.

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