Oil company executives are resisting a recent wave of state-level litigation aimed at making the energy industry pay for the costs of climate change.
“It’s sort of bizarre that the users of our products say: “Well, actually, we didn’t want your product. So why did you force it on us?” Shell CEO Ben van Beurden told reporters in London. “I don’t think that in the end it will solve anything other than maybe redistributing wealth to a certain class of the economy.”
Van Beurden’s remarks were a rebuke to state attorneys general claims that Big Oil should be responsible for constructing sea walls, levees and other infrastructure improvements necessitated by global warming.
As the Houston Chronicle reports, climate change and its quickening pace are oft-tied to the production and use of fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal. Increased carbon dioxide emissions boost the prevalence of greenhouse gases, which have the effect of trapping heat within the Earth’s atmosphere.
Lawsuits targeting the energy industry are, writes the Chronicle, intended to ‘recast’ the debate on global warming—a debate in which nations and local governments are beginning to assume responsibility for fighting back against its destructive effects. However, the suits stacked up against companies like Shell carry an odd argument. Class actions, initiated by attorneys general and environmental advocacy groups, blame oil producers for foisting their products upon the world.
Among the most novel approaches adopted in suits is the assertion that Big Oil was aware of the impact its refineries were having on the environment long before ‘global warming’ became a broad matter of public concern.
“Like the tobacco companies that were successfully sued decades ago, we’re also suing five of the biggest including Exxon Mobil, for example, who systematically poisoned the Earth, knew about it, covered it up, explained it away, tried to hook people more and more on their product,” said New York mayor Bill de Blasio. “Let’s help bring the death knell to this industry that’s done so much harm.”
De Blasio didn’t propose a solution to relieving the United States’ harsh reliance on fossil fuels.
Courts have had mixed reactions to the litigation, which has been characterized by both sides trying to out-maneuver one another with requests for venue changes and reems of documents and records.
The Chronicle gives the example of several such failures, when judges in Oakland and San Francisco dismissed suits against oil companies. In both instances, the courts said the issue of climate change was too broad for the judiciary and that it should be properly addressed by lawmakers. Another said it didn’t make sense to punish a business which provides products in constant high demand.
Van Beurden told shareholders that class actions are a ‘business model’ in the United States—and says the threat of lawsuits could prevent the company from setting its own targets to reduce climate change.
“The moment we adopt a target and you cannot quite deliver on elements of it, you immediately have a class action suit from shareholders or you get the SEC investigating you,” said van Beurden. Of targets that are “legally binding,” he said, “we don’t think it’s going to help us.”