Analysis-Climate lawsuits snowball as South Americans seek healthy environment
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Landmark lawsuit against Guyana’s government arguing oil production fuels climate change could bolster lawsuits as court cases involving energy companies and public authorities crumble multiply, according to lawyers and environmentalists.
The constitutional claim – the first of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean – claims oil exploration and production led by U.S. oil major ExxonMobil off the coast of the South American country is unconstitutional, senior counsel for the case, Melinda Janki.
Filed this month by two Guyanese citizens before the small nation’s constitutional court, the lawsuit centers on the state’s duty to protect the environment for present and future generations, Janki said.
“We want to know if this oil production is consistent and compatible with the right to a healthy environment,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Janki, an international human rights and environmental lawyer in Guyana, said she hoped the case would encourage others to take similar action.
The lawsuit includes estimated greenhouse gas emissions from offshore oil fields, citing data “as calculated by Exxon” in the company’s environmental assessments, Janki said.
Carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels are causing global warming and also making the ocean more acidic, damaging Guyana’s coral reefs and mangroves, she added.
“This is essential for our sisters and brothers in the Caribbean as they, like Guyana, depend very heavily on the oceans for their livelihood,” Janki said, adding that it will likely take months for the judge to render. a decision.
“These are the citizens who hold their government to account in the public interest … We defend ourselves, defend our country, defend our region and defend the planet,” she said.
Guyana’s natural resources ministry and attorney general’s office did not respond to email requests for comment. ExxonMobil did not respond to calls for comment.
The oil consortium led by ExxonMobil, which includes its partners Hess Corp and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC-Nexen), has so far made 18 discoveries, containing about 9 billion barrels of recoverable oil and gas, in the block of Stabroek in Guyana, one of the largest reserves in the world.
In April, Mike Cousins, senior vice president of exploration and new ventures at ExxonMobil, said in a statement that making progress on the company’s plans in Guyana was “vital” to unlocking resource value. offshore for the inhabitants of the country.
Guyanese Minister of Natural Resources Vickram Bharrat said last month that the government is committed to “sustainably developing” its oil and gas resources “to improve the lives of all Guyanese”.
Oil production is expected to generate tens of billions of dollars over the years in much needed revenue for the country with a population of around 740,000.
Carroll Muffett, head of the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law, said the Guyana case would help “equip and support others in this region who are fighting a similar development” with fossil fuels.
“We are witnessing a rapid evolution of the law and the foundations of each case are gradually becoming much more solid,” he added.
“ EFFECTIVE ” TOOL
Fossil fuel companies face increasing pressure as activists go to court to hold companies and governments accountable for the impacts of their operations on climate change.
The legal cases aimed to force governments to abandon coal, oil and gas, rapidly increase investment in renewables, as well as bolster national emission reduction targets under the Accord. Paris of 2015 on climate change.
Last week, a Dutch court ruling against Royal Dutch Shell ordered the energy giant to cut its global warming carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2019 levels. Shell said that she would appeal the decision.
Dennis van Berkel, legal adviser to the Urgenda Foundation, a Dutch environmental group, said the decision was “revolutionary”, showing that litigation is proving to be one of the “most effective tools” to force action against climate change.
“Human rights and constitutional obligations still rest primarily on the state,” he said. “However, fossil fuel companies will find that they can’t just say, ‘Well, we’re doing what the law requires of us.’
Sam Hunter Jones, an attorney for the environmental law charity ClientEarth, said climate disputes around the world should focus more on human rights impacts because “investments in fossil fuels are being challenged and reviewed.
“We expect these kinds of principles to be used and further developed in cases brought before courts around the world,” he said.
Such principles are already well established in Latin America, where a large part of the countries have constitutions and regulations that recognize the right of citizens to a healthy environment and the rights of nature such as rivers and ecosystems.
Caio Borges, law and climate program coordinator at the Brazilian Institute for Climate and Society, said many countries in South America “already have very good environmental laws and safeguards.”
“Of course, there is a big gap and a mismatch between formal legal rules and the field application of those rules,” he added.
Climate cases in Latin America have often been brought forward by indigenous peoples against the state for failing to protect the environment, including the carbon-storing Amazon rainforest spread across eight countries in the region.
Borges said he expected litigation to increase as citizens put more pressure on governments to curb growing deforestation and accelerate action on climate change.
“In Brazil and other countries in the Amazon, these cases will mainly focus on land use,” he said. “(They) will discuss how forest preservation is essential to achieving climate engagement goals.”
He predicted a growth in climate disputes against governments and businesses in resource-rich countries like Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil that depend on mining and oil revenues, with young activists playing a larger role.
While climate cases in Latin America have so far mainly focused on government accountability, a Peruvian farmer has taken on German utility company RWE.
Saul Luciano Lliuya, from the city of Huaraz under the Palcaraju Glacier which pushes the waters of Lake Palcacocha higher, sued RWE in 2015 for its role in global warming.
Lliuya argued that greenhouse gas emissions from RWE’s coal-fired power plants are partly responsible for the glacier’s melting, producing water that threatens to flood her home.
In some Latin American countries, particularly Brazil, attempts are underway to weaken environmental regulations, Borges said.
“There is now a movement (across the region), which involves both state actors and business, lobbying governments to reduce the level of protection … so much of this litigation is aimed at doing apply the existing rules, ”he added.
Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; edited by Megan Rowling. Please mention the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org