Could victories against Big Oil hasten fossil fuels’ end?

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, major legal and political changes rocked the global oil industry and indicated that ambitious climate action is gaining momentum. But while we’re thinking globally, let’s act locally. 

A court in the Netherlands ruled that energy giant Shell must reduce its carbon dioxide emissions in the country by 45% of 2019 levels by the year 2030. The Dutch court sided with the international advocacy group Friends of the Earth in holding that companies must cut their climate impacts in line with the Paris Climate Accords. Though the new precedent only directly applies to the Netherlands, it likely foretells similar action elsewhere in the European Union and the rest of the world, as courts recognize that climate obligations have the force of law.

Meanwhile, shareholders at two other energy behemoths – Exxon and Chevron – used their voting power to buck the status quo. At Exxon, shareholders – including hedge funds and pensions – defied management and tradition and elected two candidates who have vowed to address climate change more seriously. Similarly, a majority of Chevron investors voted for a more aggressive emissions cutting plan.

And in Washington, the EPA announced that it would work toward restoring the power of states and tribes to block fossil fuel pipelines and other infrastructure that goes through waterways. A Trump administration rule set limits on this veto power in favor of the oil industry, most notably affecting the states of New York and Washington.

Taken together, these are welcome signs that the status quo on fossil fuels is starting to crumble. As international scientific authorities warn that the climate can’t tolerate new fossil fuel infrastructure, courts, governments, and investors are recognizing that big oil must be forced to draw down, not trusted to do the right thing without supervision.

After all, we can’t take fossil fuel companies at their word when they promise to go green. As we wrote two weeks ago, pipeline companies like Enbridge have an abysmal track record in Minnesota when it comes to protecting the environment and maintaining public confidence. They have openly defied shutdown orders, as Enbridge did after Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered them to cease operating Line 5. On issues like local jobs, health protections, and sex trafficking associated with pipeline worker camps, oil companies have broken trust just as they have broken our climate.

It’s exciting to see these victories against fossil fuel giants, because we won’t meet our climate goals without cutting their impact. Shell, Exxon, and Chevron are among the 20 or so companies responsible for one-third of all carbon emissions, and they frequently use greenwashing and biased marketing to shift the blame onto individuals.

At long last, it looks like the world is seeing through Big Oil’s smokescreen.

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