Exxon Escapes

Exxon Escapes

After a bit more than a year of legal wrangling, a landmark lawsuit against ExxonMobil has ended with the oil giant emerging unscathed.

New York Supreme Court Judge Barry Ostrager ruled that the company didn’t engage in fraudulent behaviour to mislead shareholders about how it accounted for climate change. It’s the second high-profile case against Big Oil to end with the companies most responsible for climate chaos scoring a victory, although this ruling has at least some silver lining.

The wheels of the New York case began turning last year after the state’s attorney general sued Exxon for allegedly lying to shareholders. The office argued that Exxon showed investors one set of accounting books while keeping another, internal set secret.

The centre of the claim was that Exxon told investors it built an $US80 ($117)-per-ton price on carbon into its projects, assuming that the world’s governments would finally get their shit together. But internally, the attorney general’s office claimed, Exxon slapped a much lower price on carbon.

The case went to trial in October and it lasted until early November. In his ruling, Ostrager said that the court “found the allegations without merit” and that New York’s attorney general “failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that ExxonMobil made any material misstatements or omissions about its practices and procedures that misled any reasonable investor.” The ruling comes after the attorney general dropped two of its charges against the company, so this is a real kick in the gut.

The fact that Exxon gets away feels like a bad ending for a Scooby-Doo episode where the bad guy gets away despite meddling kids. Add in the fact that it comes a year and a half after a case that a handful of California city governments filed against Big Oil companies got tossed out, and it seems like we’re pretty damn screwed. Courts have done exactly jack shit to hold fossil fuel companies accountable to-date. But about that silver lining…

“Nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases in the production of its fossil fuel products,” Ostrager wrote.

And on that note, there is a number of other cases moving forward in various courtrooms that will continue to put Big Oil on trial for everything from covering up what it knew about climate change to damages wrought by its product. There are also international cases in the offing, including one that just dropped last week going after BP for false advertising.

Beyond the courts, Democratic presidential candidates are also ramping up pressure. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both said they would hold fossil fuel polluters accountable. Even Congress has shown some interest in Big Oil accountability.

There’s no denying that the era of Big Oil lawsuits is off to a bumpy start in terms of bringing large corporate polluters to account. But then the era is far from over. And there’s no shortage of things to hit oil majors with.