A federal judge ruled against multiple oil and gas companies Monday, deciding that Rhode Island’s novel climate liability case can be tried in the state.
The ruling will allow Rhode Island prosecutors to continue to bring charges against 21 oil and gas producers including Chevron, Shell and BP as the state tries to get the companies to help pay for damages caused by climate change.
In his ruling, Judge William Smith of the U.S. District Court For the District of Rhode Island remanded the case to state court.
“This is, needless to say, an important suit for both sides. The question presently before the Court is where in our federal system it will be decided,” the judge wrote.
“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.”
In his ruling Monday, the judge made clear his understanding of the links with climate change in the prosecution’s case, saying, “Climate change is expensive, and the State wants help paying for it."
The judge also noted that the companies "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," the opinion also read. "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.”
Rhode Island first filed its lawsuit against fossil fuel companies in July 2018, becoming the first U.S. state to try to place at fault the fossil fuel industry for anticipated climate change-driven damages expected in the state.
Two other similar suits brought by California and the city of Baltimore have also since been sent back to state court for prosecution, despite oil and gas companies’ attempts to fight in federal court.
Environmental groups championed the ruling Monday.
"Big oil and gas producers are desperate to stay out of state courts where tobacco lost and and opioid manufacturers are on the ropes. But now a third federal district court has ruled that state courts are where climate liability cases belong,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity.
"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."
A manufacturing association said the decision to keep the case in state would not affect the outcome.
"Climate change is a shared global challenge that requires a broad and innovative response from policymakers. At the end of the day, this is not a liability issue for state or federal court. Fortunately, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has a strong history of rejecting this type of litigation," said Phil Goldberg, special counsel with the Manufacturers' Accountability Project.
"If the state really wants to do something about climate change, it should work with manufacturers on energy innovations, not target them for baseless litigation.”
This story has been updated