The ‘Skeletons’ in Big Oil’s Closet
Newsletter Theres growing evidence that fossil fuel companies knew their product would harm the climate, and thats driving lawsuits around the world. 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, 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, thats because it is. And, it appears to be effective. The central legal tactic in the Eni suit started making the rounds after 2015, when 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, weve learned that other companies, including , also knew about the dangers of fossil fuels and climate change. So did and the , 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 for causing climate change and ordered the company to cut its emissions. The case used the companys 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. The net of climate accountability isnt just widening, its 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. Its 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 weve already found in Big Oils closet, in reality weve only been looking through the keyhole, he said. Theres 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. Thats 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. Thats important, because, as the world moves away from fossil fuels, oil companies want to have a hand in shaping that transition. Its no coincidence that, last year, to COP27, the global climate summit in Egypt. The next summit, in the United Arab Emirates in November and December, will be , by the way. Heres an example of whats 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, its key to keep in mind that there are major hurdles for carbon capture technology to gain traction, as my colleague Brad Plumer . In this week, John Kerry, President Bidens climate envoy, called on the industry to provide solid evidence that the carbon capture technologies theyre 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, thats what advocates for an energy transition hope. We know that theyre 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. Theres much, much wider society acceptability for a just transition. Trinidad and Tobago is struggling with sea level rise and other , but its also pushing to extract every last drop of its The Biden administration has granted a key permit for the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia despite . Despite billions in Western investment in battery manufacturing for electric cars, China is so far ahead that it may take decades Damage in Myanmar and Bangladesh over the weekend was not as severe as predicted, but the deadly storm left . More than 12 million people in the Pacific Northwest were put under a heat advisory on Saturday. Temperatures toppled some . Homeowners along the coast of England are watching the sea swallow their communities. Some are getting help, while others are being left to . Calgarys political establishment has long been entwined with the oil industry. The new mayor wants the city, the largest in Alberta, to be a hub for . Just one almond gulps 3.2 gallons. In many western states, the Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, the big water user isnt households, lawns, fountains, industry or golf courses. . The Guardian interviewed scientists who denounced a big rise in abusive comments from . Climate change and drought are setting up a conflict between elephants and small-scale farmers in Kenya. Some farmers told the BBC that . The Third Pole examined how climate change may be affecting the frequency of . The Biden administration is offering billions in subsidies for projects that store carbon dioxide underground. But Politico found that officials lack the resources to . 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. . is a writer for the Climate Forward newsletter, currently based in Brazil. She was previously a fellow at the Rainforest Investigations Network, where she examined the forces that drive deforestation in the Amazon.