Puerto Rico Sues Oil Majors Over Hurricane Damage

First-ever U.S. climate change lawsuit accusing fossil fuel companies of racketeering.

Debris is seen during a storm surge near the Puerto Chico Harbor during the passing of Hurricane Irma on September 6, 2017 in Fajardo, Puerto Rico.
Debris was seen during a storm surge in Fajardo, Puerto Rico during the passing of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Jose Jimenez / Getty Images

Sixteen municipalities in Puerto Rico filed a lawsuit claiming that major oil companies including Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell are financially responsible for the damage caused by Irma and Maria, two catastrophic hurricanes that pummeled the Caribbean island in 2017.

The class action lawsuit notes that according to the scientific consensus, fossil fuel emissions are to blame for the climate crisis that has increased the global average temperature by 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit). 

Much of this additional heat has been absorbed by the oceans and warmer waters are leading to more destructive and wetter tropical storms that have devastated Caribbean nations in recent years. According to official data, Maria killed nearly 3,000 people in Puerto Rico and caused $107 billion in damages.

"Puerto Rico was hit by the perfect storm and is the ultimate victim of global warming," said Marc Grossman, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in a press release. "This is an opportunity to finally get justice for all that Puerto Rico sacrificed in 2017."

States, cities, and counties in the U.S. have filed around 20 cases to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the climate crisis. 

These cases are similar to one another because they all claim that fossil fuel companies misled the public by promoting products that they knew were causing climate harm. However, the Puerto Rico lawsuit is unique because it is the first to include claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and, as such, it was brought in federal court instead of a state court.

Puerto Rico could potentially receive tens of billions if the case succeeds and a victory would set a precedent that would allow other jurisdictions to file RICO cases against fossil fuel companies.

It could take years for the case to unravel but a good omen is that it bears similarities with some of the RICO cases that were successfully brought against the tobacco industry in the past, said Korey Silverman-Roati, a climate law fellow at Columbia University’s Sabine Center for Climate Law.

“There is a key parallel with the tobacco industry because the plaintiffs argue that this is an industrywide effort to convince the public that dangerous, harmful products are not dangerous, even though the industry knows that they're dangerous,” Silverman-Roati told Treehugger.

Oil companies are ultimately responsible for the climate destruction that Puerto Rico suffered in 2017, the lawsuit argues, because they marketed and sold fossil fuels that are causing global warming, even though they were aware of the dangers since at least the 1970s—independent media outlets such as Inside Climate News and Drilled have thoroughly reported on this decades-long deceit.

“But instead of transparency, the defendants engaged in a pseudo-scientific campaign to sow doubt about climate change and protect their monopoly over fossil fuel production,” the plaintiffs' legal team said. 

Although oil companies have long known that warmer ocean waters would supercharge hurricanes, they continued “producing, promoting, refining, marketing, and selling fossil fuel products” that have increased the frequency of destructive storms like Irma and Maria, which caused “apocalyptic damage” to Puerto Rico, the lawsuit says

The future of the lawsuit is uncertain since the defendants will likely use multiple tactics to delay or block the case, such as asking that the case be dismissed or arguing that this should not be a class action lawsuit. Potential Supreme Court decisions could also derail the case.

But climate litigation has seen some huge victories in recent times, such as the May ruling against Shell in the Netherlands and a case brought by a French municipality exposed to sea level rise and flooding that concluded with a court ordering the government to slash emissions

Although it is hard to compare climate litigation in different countries, plaintiffs in the Puerto Rico case “may be encouraged by seeing other courts hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the climate harms they're causing with their products,” said Silverman-Roati.

View Article Sources
  1. "Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.