By Karen Savage
A lawsuit filed against Shell in Rhode Island could become the first climate change-related lawsuit to proceed to discovery, which will seek to uncover more about what the oil giant knew about climate risks and when it knew them.
The suit, which was filed by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) in 2017, alleges that Shell has known for decades about the risks posed to its facilities by climate change, but has failed to protect its Providence Terminal and by extension, the city and people around it.
The company’s oil storage terminal is located at the head of Narragansett Bay and is vulnerable to flooding due to sea level rise, extreme rainfall events and increasingly severe storms. CLF, a Boston-based environmental law and advocacy group that operates across New England, also contends that Shell is failing to accurately report pollution discharged into the Providence River.
Federal Judge William E. Smith on Monday rejected an attempt by the oil giant to dismiss the case, which will now proceed in U.S. District Court.
“The company has for years deceived regulators and the public about the global and local risks of the climate crisis,” CLF President Bradley Campbell said in a press release. “CLF will now have the opportunity to hold Shell accountable for years of neglect and outright deceit at the expense of public safety.”
Shell’s failure to prepare the terminal presents both a present and future risk of harm to the Providence River and nearby communities, according to CLF.
Information made public in the discovery process of this lawsuit has the potential to be held against Shell in other lawsuits as well, including the many climate liability suits filed by municipalities across the country against fossil fuel companies. Those lawsuits seek to hold the companies accountable for the costs of climate impacts, which the municipalities allege the companies have known about for decades.
Smith did dismiss CLF’s claims of harm that is projected far into the future, but said CLF can pursue claims against the company for impending, foreseeable harm.
“The complaint makes clear that a major weather event, magnified by the effects of climate change, could happen at virtually any time, resulting in the catastrophic release of pollutants due to defendants’ alleged failure to adapt the terminal to address those impending effects,” Smith wrote in the order. “While it might not occur for many years, the fact that it is certainly impending is enough to meet the standard.”
Shell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Today’s decision means we will have our day in court on unlawful Shell decisions that left Providence families and all of Narragansett Bay at imminent risk of catastrophic oil and toxic chemical spills,” Campbell said.
CLF filed a similar suit against ExxonMobil in 2016, alleging that the oil giant is failing to protect its Everett, Mass. oil terminal from the impacts of climate change.