PROVIDENCE — What did Shell know about climate change and when did the company know it?
An environmental group suing the global oil and gas giant in federal court is asking those questions in regard to what it believes is the growing threat to Narragansett Bay and surrounding neighborhoods posed by Shell’s fossil-fuel terminal on the Providence waterfront.
The Conservation Law Foundation filed a motion this week in U.S. District Court in Providence seeking to compel the multinational corporation headquartered in the Netherlands to turn over its records on climate impacts and the potential vulnerability of the Fields Point terminal to extreme storms and rising seas. Chief Judge William E. Smith denied the motion without prejudice on Wednesday pending a conference in court.
But the questions about Shell’s knowledge of potential climate impacts still stand, and the foundation says it will consider refiling the motion based on the outcome of the meeting.
“They’ve known since the 1970s that their products are damaging the climate,” said Darrell Brown, vice president of CLF Rhode Island. “But instead of protecting our communities from climate fallout, they’ve spent nearly 50 years and billions of dollars sowing doubt and deceit.”
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The motion to compel and Smith’s decision are the latest developments in a case that has been playing out in court since 2017. It is the second lawsuit that the CLF, a Boston-based environmental group, has brought against a fossil-fuel company accusing it of endangering a New England city. In 2016, the group filed suit against ExxonMobil over alleged violations at its Everett fuel terminal near Boston. That case is set to move into the discovery phase.
Providence suit claims Shell’s waterfront terminals are vulnerable
In the Providence suit, the foundation argues that Shell, the second-largest oil and gas company in the world, hasn’t done enough to protect its 75-acre facility in Providence from rising waters caused by climate change and a projected increase in the frequency of coastal storms and extreme rains.
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Lawyers for the foundation argue that Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Harvey and other severe weather events prove that waterfront fuel and chemical terminals like the one in Providence are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. They say that if the terminal, which includes 25 storage tanks, is compromised, it would spew toxic pollutants including oil, ethanol and other chemicals into the Providence River and Narragansett Bay.
Shell contends that the allegations detailed in the lawsuit are speculative and exaggerated. The facility is in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act and other state and federal laws, the company maintains.
Shell sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, but in September 2020 Smith rejected the company’s claim that the foundation’s concerns were based only on future projections. Smith ruled that the case could continue.
“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,” he wrote.
The CLF heralded the ruling, saying it marked the first time a climate suit against a fossil fuel company was allowed to move into the discovery process. But since then, despite meetings and rounds of correspondence, Shell has stymied requests to see the company’s records on climate change, said Alex St. Pierre, a staff attorney with the foundation.
Shell did not respond for a request for comment on the latest developments in the case.
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Of particular interest to the foundation is a team employed by Shell to assess climate-related risks to its facilities. St. Pierre said Shell has argued that records related to the team are not relevant to the Providence suit.
But she counters that the documents are at the heart of the foundation’s case. If Shell has knowledge that the Providence terminal is facing climate threats, then it should be able to demonstrate what has been done to protect the facility.
“If they had this knowledge, then what have they been doing with their infrastructure?” she said. “They should be turning over documents showing that they’ve prepared.”
And if the company hasn’t taken adequate steps to shore up the terminal, then it may be placing the surrounding area of South Providence at risk.
“It’s no coincidence that the most vulnerable neighborhoods are low-income and home to immigrants and people of color,” said Brown.
The lawsuit comes amid growing concerns about polluting industries around the Port of Providence. Residents and environmental groups fought furiously, and ultimately unsuccessfully, against the construction of a natural gas processing facility near the port several years ago. They had more luck in helping to kill a proposal for a garbage transfer station. More recently, they’ve lined up against the expansion of a propane shipping terminal.
The case is also proceeding as Shell is coming under increasing pressure from investors to speed a transition to cleaner energy sources. Additionally, last year, a Dutch court ordered Shell to accelerate plans to reduce its carbon footprint.
According to public documents, Shell has studied climate risks for decades, the CLF says.
“Failing to prepare the terminal for climate change is particularly egregious if defendants have extensive information about the likelihood and severity of risks and have not taken any measures to mitigate those risks,” the foundation wrote in its motion to compel.