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Suing Big Oil Is Becoming a Lucrative Business

First it was a group of children in Montana. Then, in Portugal, a group sued their local governments for allowing climate change to happen. The Montana group even won. It's open season for suing governments-and Big Oil.

Of course, the supermajors have been a top target for environmentalist groups and some local authorities in the U.S. for years, but the lawsuits have not really resulted in any significant victories for the plaintiffs-yet.

But now it seems that anyone who has reason to be unhappy with their lot can just take Big Oil to court, which is exactly what one Belgian farmer did a month ago. According to Hugues Falys, "Climate change is having a tangible impact on my work and life: yield losses, extra work, and the stress that comes from dealing with a disrupted crop calendar."

"My profession is intimately linked to the climate. In recent years, climate change has caused farmers a great deal of damage and left us uncertain about the future," the farmer explained in March. Yet rather than suing all the Big Oil majors, Falys singled out TotalEnergies-possibly because it is the largest fuel distributor in Belgium.

Falys's case opens in mid-April, and it may be interesting to keep an eye on developments in the courtroom as a possible sign of things to come. Meanwhile, Shell's appeal against a landmark climate ruling by a Dutch court also began this month in The Hague.

Back in 2021, the District Court in The Hague ordered the oil supermajor to slash its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 in a first-of-its-kind ruling in a climate case brought by environmentalists that could set precedents for other oil companies. The court said Shell must start doing this immediately and include the so-called Scope 3 emissions, those generated by the use of its producers, per the order.

Shell appealed the ruling and, at the hearing, will argue that the original ruling had no legal basis and that it also overstepped the boundaries of judiciary authority, per the Financial Times. The environmentalist organization that won the original case, for its part, will present the same argument it used in 2021: that Shell has an obligation to act in accordance with studies suggesting the oil and gas industry causes changes in weather patterns and in accordance with international agreements such as the Paris Agreement.

Meanwhile, that same group of activists, Friends of the Earth, is threatening to sue ING-a Dutch lender that, like all lenders, does business with the oil and gas industry. The reason: that the bank does business with the oil and gas industry.

In January this year, Friends of the Earth sent the CEO of ING, Steven van Rijswijk, a notice of legal liability, informing him that the bank had violated its legal obligations "by contributing to dangerous climate change."

In another remarkable development in the litigation world, a climate NGO claims that Big Oil majors can be sued for what they call "climate homicide." The theory is that Big Oil knew about climate change but hid it, while climate change caused fatalities. For now, many believe this theory is outlandish and it would break down in court but its authors are not giving up, saying there has been interest from prosecutors.

Suing Big Oil is already a business, and in some cases it can be a lucrative business. Pushing the boundaries of what grievances can be taken to court is a marked feature of the litigation push against Big Oil-and a sign of tough times to come for an industry with a big climate change target on its back.

By Irina Slav for

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Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry. More