litigation in the U.S. and globally is a entering an ominous phase for the oil
industry. In the U.S. (home to more climate lawsuits any other nation), numerous
lawsuits are advancing after a Supreme Court decision. That particular decision
cleared the way for these cases to proceed and denied oil companies’ efforts to
move the venue of such lawsuits from state courts to federal courts. For example:
Globally, things are also menacing. For example:
Sokol, professor at Loyola University College of Law, stated, “I don’t know of
another time in history where so many courts in so many different levels all
over the globe have been tasked with dealing with a similar overarching issue.”
Climate-related cases in the U.S. previously focused on the regulation of
specific infrastructure projects.
However, recent climate litigation differs because it focuses not on a
particular projects’ emissions, but on responsibility for the climate itself.
Sokol has labeled these new suits “climate accountability litigation.”
the U.S. now allege that the oil industry has long known the dangers of burning
fossil fuels and hid that information.
Since 2017, seven states and 35 municipalities have sued oil companies and
lobbying groups on these grounds. Unlike the youth plaintiffs’ constitutional
cases, the disinformation lawsuits seek large monetary damages.
industry has requested to have these cases heard in federal courts, which are
seen as more favorable to the industry, instead of the state courts where they
were filed. In April, the Supreme Court denied five such requests by oil
majors. It later issued a similar decision on appeal requests in lawsuits filed
by Hoboken and Delaware.
Merner, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, stated that these rulings could
be “game changing.” There could still be procedural challenges and delay, but
now, courts will debate their legal merit.
Spitler, an ExxonMobil spokesperson, stated his company will “continue to fight
these suits, which are a waste of time.” A spokesperson for the American
Petroleum Institute stated that the industry has substantially reduced emissions
over the past two decades.
Each of the
disinformation cases is based on some combination of four different legal theories:
Tort law, product liability, consumer protection and—most recently—
racketeering. In April, lawyers for the city of Hoboken amended a 2020
complaint to allege that the defendants violated New Jersey’s racketeering laws
by conspiring to sow doubt about climate change. It marked the first-ever state
lawsuit of its kind, following one last year in which 16 Puerto Rico cities
brought federal charges under the Racketeer
Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) claims—RICO was enacted in 1970
to target the mafia.
Missy Sims, a lawyer with Milberg, one of the world’s largest
class-action firms, is “on a mission from God,” and has filed lawsuits against ExxonMobil,
Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and others. She argues that those companies
have produced 40% of global GHGs, while colluding to deceive the public.
Her case is
part of a new wave of litigation targeting oil companies over climate change, but
differs in two significant ways. It was the first to allege that, by
downplaying the effects of global warming, the companies violated RICO. Keep in
mind, RICO charges expose defendants to potentially huge financial damages and
open a new front in oil companies’ legal challenges. The case was also the
first to request damages from a specific weather event, 2017’s Hurricane Maria,
which killed thousands and caused more than $100 billion in damages in Puerto
All of the larger
rulings helped galvanize other, smaller cases and create a snowball effect. The
more individual climate cases succeed in the courts, the more they set new
legal precedents that allow other climate cases to succeed, which most do—54%
of non-US cases had outcomes unfavorable to oil companies.
things are certain.
First, studies found that the filing of a new case or a court decision against oil
majors negatively affected their finances. Thus, oil companies will be harmed,
no matter the outcomes of the cases. Second, as always, many lawyers will be
making lots of money from this litigation. WO
DR. ROGER BEZDEK is
an internationally recognized energy analyst and president of MISI, in
Washington, D.C. He has over 30 years’ experience in the energy, utility and environmental
areas, serving in industry, academia and government. He has served as senior
adviser in the U.S. Treasury Department, U.S. energy delegate to the EU and
NATO, and as consultant to the White House, the UN, government agencies, and
numerous corporations and organizations.