Montana’s on trial for climate change. Is Exxon next?
Welcome to a new era for climate lawsuits. It’s only the beginning.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
The United States’ first-ever trial in a constitutional climate case began this week in Helena, Montana, where 16 young people are charging the state’s support of climate-wrecking fossil fuels with violating their right to a “clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
The plaintiffs, ages 5 to 22, argue that state policies enabling the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels that cause climate change have imperiled their health, cultural traditions, and family livelihoods, altering the course of their lives indefinitely and violating the Montana Constitution.
The trial will last for two weeks, where youth and climate experts will relay the consequences of burning fossil fuels to Montanians in the hopes that the court will declare Montana’s energy policy unconstitutional. As one 19-year old plaintiff told The Guardian, “The very fact that we are going to trial is empowering, because it means that the courts are willing to hold the government accountable.”
For us, this begs the question: when will the fossil fuel companies themselves, who are reaping record profits from oil and gas products while continuing to lie about their role in the climate crisis and lobby to block action that would solve it, see a similar reckoning?
The evidence that Big Oil companies are behind the wheel, driving climate catastrophe ever forward on all fronts, grows weekly.
They’re reneging on their clean energy commitments and doubling back down on fossil fuels.
Shell is ditching its plan to reduce oil output, the company announced on Wednesday. The oil giant’s decision will mean extra emissions equivalent to those produced by the entire country of Spain by the year 2030, according to estimates by nonprofit Global Witness.
Yet Shell is still appealing a Dutch court ruling that ordered the polluter to reduce emissions, claiming that “Shell alone cannot directly influence the energy choices made by its customers.” The company hauled in a record $40 billion last year, and plans to invest another $40 billion in oil and gas production by 2035.
They’re still touting their climate targets and rewarding their executives for supposedly fulfilling them — but those climate targets have been proven worthless.
While a skyrocketing number of fossil fuel companies have announced net zero plans in the past year, most of those plans are “largely meaningless,” a new report from UK nonprofit Net Zero Tracker found. That’s because companies often fail to account for emissions from the use of their products (Scope 3 emissions), which make up the vast majority of the fossil fuel industry’s greenhouse gas pollution.
A recent investigation into Chevron’s climate pledge by nonprofit watchdog Corporate Accountability found that the company uses “unviable” technologies and “junk” carbon offsets tied to environmental injustices in the Global South to bulk up its net zero claims.
They’re blowing off real climate action — and fighting to escape accountability for it.
Shareholders from Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP batted down climate resolutions after the companies made record profits last year on high oil and gas prices.
Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute lobbied for a loophole that would exempt “exceptional events” — like wildfires made significantly worse by climate change, which aren’t so exceptional these days — from federal air quality monitoring, Jacobin reports. But a third of wildfires in the Western U.S. and Canada can be traced back to the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists study last month.
Without accountability for Big Oil, the companies that benefit most from keeping fossil fuels alive will only continue pouring money into climate deception and destruction.
Thankfully, courts seem to be giving the green light to climate lawsuits across the board — be they against states or private companies. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way forward for state and municipal lawsuits that seek to hold fossil fuel polluters directly accountable. Those, too, can now move forward toward their day in court.
Of the dozens of communities that have filed climate accountability lawsuits, there are two lead candidates for who will be the first to put Big Oil on trial: Massachusetts, whose attorney general’s office is suing ExxonMobil for consumer fraud, and Honolulu, Hawai’i, which is seeking to make Exxon and other oil majors pay for climate damages they knowingly caused. Both cases are already in pre-trial discovery, where more evidence of Big Oil’s deception could be unearthed.
As Vermont Law School professor Pat Parenteau recently told ExxonKnews, “it’s probably only a matter of time before there’s a major verdict against one or more of these companies.”
Next Wednesday at 10:00AM EST, the Senate Budget Committee will hold a hearing investigating the role of fossil fuel industry dark money in delaying climate action and imperling local and federal budgets. Tune in here.
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