The legal headaches for Big Oil are spreading. The latest company to land in court is Eni, the Italian giant.
Today, I want to talk about lawsuits against oil companies and how the sheer volume and complexity of cases around the world may lead to change.
Last week, Greenpeace and other groups, along with 12 private citizens of Italy, sued Eni in Rome, saying the company was well aware of the climate damage caused by its product but chose to ignore the harm and keep pumping oil anyway.
If that legal tactic sounds familiar, that’s because it is. And, it appears to be effective.
The central legal tactic in the Eni suit started making the rounds after 2015, when journalists uncovered documents showing that company researchers at Exxon, starting in the 1970s, had made remarkably accurate projections of just how much the burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet. For years after those projections, however, Exxon continued to publicly cast doubt on climate science and cautioned against moving away from burning fossil fuels.
Since then, we’ve learned that other companies, including Shell, also knew about the dangers of fossil fuels and climate change. So did automakers and the coal industry, journalists and researchers have found.
The result has been dozens of lawsuits by organizations and governments accusing Exxon, Shell and other companies of public deception. The plaintiffs are demanding billions of dollars in climate damages.
The Shell case, in the Netherlands, showed the kind of impact that these lawsuits can have. In 2021, a court found that Shell was liable for causing climate change and ordered the company to cut its emissions. The case used the company’s early knowledge of climate science as one of its central arguments. The company has denied wrongdoing and has appealed the decision.
Exxon also denies wrongdoing.
The suit against Eni is widely regarded as the first of its kind in Italy. The company said it would “prove in court the groundlessness of the lawsuit” as well as “the correctness of its actions and its transformation and decarbonization strategy.”
Why it matters
“The net of climate accountability isn’t just widening, it’s also tightening,” said Geoffrey Supran, a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami who focuses on the history of climate disinformation.
It’s widening, he said, because the revelations in every case are helping to drive more lawsuits in a wide range of jurisdictions, most recently Italy, involving an equally wide range of plaintiffs.
Digging through corporate documents, Supran noted — as lawyers, researchers, journalists and even members of Congress have been doing — has yielded damning evidence.
“For all the skeletons we’ve already found in Big Oil’s closet, in reality we’ve only been looking through the keyhole,” he said. “There’s this kind of avalanche of discoveries now building that is helping to strengthen, and I think inspire, these cases.”
Moreover, Supran told me, the net is also tightening, because, by coming from many directions all at once, these cases “may spread the defense thin.” Meaning, the number and the complexity of cases could eventually prove too much for oil and gas companies to handle despite their vast resources.
That’s what happened with Big Tobacco, Supran said. Cigarette companies, facing lawsuits on so many different fronts, ultimately opted to negotiate with plaintiffs.
Friends of the Earth International, one of the plaintiffs in the Shell case, translated a lot of the research it used into different languages. The group hopes to inspire others to file similar cases in different countries.
Aside from liability issues, these cases present another big problem for Big Oil companies: the loss of credibility. That’s important, because, as the world moves away from fossil fuels, oil companies want to have a hand in shaping that transition.
It’s no coincidence that, last year, oil companies sent the second-biggest delegation to COP27, the global climate summit in Egypt. The next summit, in the United Arab Emirates in November and December, will be led by an oil executive, by the way.
Here’s an example of what’s at stake for the companies: The world can phase out fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, as scientists say we should, or we can keep using them, as the industry would prefer, and try to capture and store the carbon emissions before they enter the atmosphere.
In this debate, it’s key to keep in mind that there are major hurdles for carbon capture technology to gain traction, as my colleague Brad Plumer recently explained. In an interview with The Associated Press this week, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, called on the industry to provide solid evidence that the carbon capture technologies they’re talking up can really avoid a climate catastrophe.
It will be harder for Big Oil to make the case for carbon capture technology if companies have a reputation for playing fast and loose with scientific facts.
At least, that’s what advocates for an energy transition hope.
“We know that they’re responsible, and the fact that they knew has just really decimated the reputation,” said Sam Cossar-Gilbert, who coordinates efforts to hold companies accountable at Friends of the Earth International. “There’s much, much wider society acceptability for a just transition.”
Essential news from The Times
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From the Opinion section
Water gluttons: Just one almond gulps 3.2 gallons. In many western states, the Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, the big water user isn’t households, lawns, fountains, industry or golf courses. It’s farming.
Before you go: Pulling your DNA from thin air
Over the last decade, wildlife researchers have refined techniques for recovering environmental DNA, the trace amounts of genetic material that all living things leave behind. They have used the technology for conservation projects, like tracking animal diseases or detecting invasive species. But the technology can also be used to pull human DNA from the air. Privacy experts say they’re worried.
Claire O’Neill, Chris Plourde and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.