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The ‘Skeletons’ in Big Oil’s Closet

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Legal troubles are widespread for big oil companies. The latest company brought to court is Italian giant Eni.

Today, I want to talk about the lawsuits against oil companies and how the sheer volume and complexity of lawsuits around the world can make a difference.

Last week, Greenpeace and other groups, along with 12 Italian civilians, sued Eni In Rome, the company said it was well aware of the climate damage its products caused, but chose to ignore it and continue pumping oil anyway.

If that legal tactic sounds familiar, it’s because it does. And it seems to work.

Enhanced responsibility

The central legal tactics in the Eni litigation began to spread after 2015. journalist Documents have been unearthed that show that, since the 1970s, Exxon researchers have predicted with astonishing accuracy how much the burning of fossil fuels will warm the planet. But years after those predictions, Exxon continued to publicly question climate science and warn against moving away from burning fossil fuels.

Since then, we have also expanded to other companies such as shell, also knew about the dangers of fossil fuels and climate change.That’s why I did car manufacturer and the coal industryfound by journalists and researchers.

The result has been dozens of lawsuits by organizations and governments accusing Exxon, Shell and other companies of public fraud. The plaintiffs are seeking billions of dollars in damages from climate change.

The Shell case in the Netherlands showed what impact such lawsuits can have. In 2021, Court found Shell responsible It ordered the company to cut its emissions, accusing it of causing climate change. The lawsuit used the company’s early knowledge of climate science as one of its central arguments. The company has denied any wrongdoing and has appealed the decision.

Exxon has also denied any wrongdoing.

The lawsuit against Eni is considered the first of its kind in Italy. The company said it would prove in court that “the lawsuit is groundless” and “the correctness of its actions and its transformation and decarbonization strategy.”

why it matters

“The web of accountability for climate change is not only widening, it’s getting narrower,” said Jeffrey Souplan, a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami who has focused on the history of climate disinformation. Stated.

He said the exposure in all lawsuits is growing as more and more cases involve plaintiffs in a wide range of jurisdictions, most recently in Italy.

Mr. Sprang pointed out that scrutiny of company documents, as done by lawyers, researchers, journalists and even members of parliament, yielded horrifying evidence.

“For all the skeletons already found in the closets of big oil companies, we’re really just looking through the keyhole,” he said. “There is an avalanche of discoveries of this sort right now, and I think that helps and inspires these cases.”

In addition, Mr. Soupran told me that the nets are also getting tougher because these incidents “may be less defensible” as they strike from many directions at once. This means that despite oil and gas companies having vast resources, the number and complexity of incidents may ultimately prove unmanageable.

That’s what happened with Big Tobacco, Mr. Souplan said. The tobacco company, facing lawsuits on various fronts, ultimately chose to negotiate with the plaintiffs.

Friends of the Earth International, one of the plaintiffs in the Shell case, translated much of the research it used into various languages. The group hopes to encourage others to file similar lawsuits in other countries.

Apart from liability issues, these incidents pose another big problem for the big oil companies: loss of credibility. This is important because as the world moves away from fossil fuels, oil companies want to be involved in shaping that transition.

Last year, it’s no coincidence The oil company sent the second largest delegation To the World Climate Summit COP27 in Egypt. Incidentally, the next summit will be held in the United Arab Emirates in November and December and will be led by oil company executives.

Below is an example of what is at stake for businesses. As scientists say, the world can either phase out fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, or it can continue to use fossil fuels as the industry wishes to recover and store energy. You can also. Carbon emissions before entering the atmosphere.

In this discussion, it is important to keep in mind that, as my colleague Brad Plummer recently explained, there are significant hurdles to widespread adoption of carbon capture technology.of Interview with Associated Press President Biden’s special envoy for climate change, John Kerry, called on the industry this week to provide hard evidence that the carbon capture technology they’re talking about can indeed avert a climate catastrophe.

The company’s reputation for treating scientific facts swiftly and loosely would make it difficult for major oil companies to make claims to carbon capture technology.

At least, that’s what the energy transition hopes for.

“We know they’re responsible, and the fact that they knew,” said Sam Cosar Gilbert, who coordinates efforts to hold companies accountable at Friends of the Earth International. It’s really ruined my reputation,” he said. “Just transitions are much more widely accepted in society.”

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Claire O’Neill, Chris Prude and Douglas Altine contributed to Climate Forward.

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