Taking Oil to Court

Monday, 1st June 2009 at 8:00 UTC Leave a comment

You might have gathered that Shell are in court in New York at the moment because they demanded the executions of 8 activists in Nigeria. Its quite a ground breaking case, but the idea came to my mind that someone should attempt to bring a lawsuit against Oil Corporations along the lines of those brought against Tobacco corps during the 90’s.

For those who don’t remember, over the last two decades various class-action lawsuits have been brought against the biggest Tobacco companies, declaring that they knew their products were going to kill people and yet still continued to market them as a sexy, fun-filled, recreational product. The Tobacco companies were forced to hand over huge sums of money to victims families and faced huge embarrassment. Tied to this was the end of the advertising of tobacco products.

But could this model of action be applied to the oil industry. There’s certainly claimed to be some clear evidence that Exxon Mobil spent most of the Clinton and Bush days trying to play down the effects of Climate Change. My worry would be that, in order to have sufficient evidence of guilt, we would need to see the planet being wrecked before there’s any admission of guilt. Many of these lawsuits required the victims to be dead or very near death, and for loved ones to make the claim. I’d rather not make a claim on behalf of a dead-Earth, and to be honest, I’d probably have bigger worries on my hands than either suing big corps or making a historic record of the last 50 years (sorry “Age of Stupid” folks!)

But there’s probably some common ground worth exploring. After all, the automotive and oil industries have spent millions trying to justify their existence, through lobbying and corporate-campaigning, to safe guard their profits. This quite closely reflects the reality of Philip Morris and the likes. And we should probably be trying to make them figure as a social pariah in the same way. After all, the point of the class-actions was to create the image that the Big Evils had preyed on the poor innocent majorities, which is pretty much the same in the cases of both Tobacco and Oil. Yes, oil has been promoted as a necessity where Tobacco was a leisure product, but in reality, there was an attempt to promote both as safe and necessary when in fact they were neither.

I’d actually quite like to see some early action on the asthma/bronchitis front, though I do suspect this is unlikely. And I think there is a strong need to avoid some of the clichés of the anti-smoking lobby, who have often seemed all to domineering and desperate. On why people living in the same block of flats as a smoker should join up to their campaign group, the US group ASH writes:

Please don’t hesitate.  Drifting tobacco smoke already kills more people than motor vehicle accidents, all crimes, AIDS, illegal drugs, etc.  In other words, you are statistically more likely to be killed by your neighbour’s tobacco smoke than by his car, his gun, or his AIDS virus.

Yeah, please can we avoid that kind of language? But overall, it could be quite an exciting area for campaigning, and could provide a legal back drop against which a wave of actions at petrol stations and elsewhere might be developed. The case would essentially need to rest on the following:

  1. That the Oil industry knew the problems and yet sought to keep them from the mind of the public.
  2. That the Oil industry continued to make oil seem like a total necessity despite knowing full well, and acting to prevent other knowing, that it was destroying lives.
  3. That certain Island states are going to be finished off by the reckless and wilfully negligent actions of the oil industry.

Its a court case I’d love to see. I’m sure they’ll have better lawyers, and its a rather risky approach, but what if the case, our case, was eventually won? Would it not be a big step along the road to finishing off this ecologically vampiric phenomenon of respectable companies wilfully destroying our planet?


Entry filed under: Activism, Climate Change, Energy, Environment, Health, Politics.

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