Big Oil Faces Human Rights Violations In Landmark Lawsuit

Big Oil Faces Human Rights Violations In Landmark Lawsuit

Royal Dutch Shell to defend fossil fuel production against environmental and human rights groups.

Casey Thiebeau | Unsplash

In the first court case of its kind, petroleum giant Royal Dutch Shell will defend itself against a coalition of environmentalist and human rights groups over its continued use of fossil fuels. The trial starts Tuesday.

Seven activist groups, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, filed the suit last year. The groups allege that the oil giant poses a threat to human rights because of its ongoing exploitation of the planet to extract fossil fuels. The groups say the billions of dollars Shell is investing in fossil fuels is knowingly undermining international climate goals.

“We are confident that the judge’s final verdict will force Shell to adhere to international climate goals and stop causing dangerous climate change,” Friends of the Earth Netherlands director Donald Pols said in a statement.

2050 Emissions Targets

The group, representing more than 17,000 Dutch citizens, is demanding Shell cut all of its emissions down to zero by 2050.

Shell says it won’t do that, but it has promised to cut the “carbon intensity” of its energy products 30 percent over 2016 numbers by 2035, and moving to 65 percent by 2050. 

That’s not good enough, though, the plaintiffs insist. They’re demanding at least a 45 percent reduction by 2030, which would need to be relative to the pollution Shell contributed to in 2019. The group maintains Shell needs to be fully carbon-neutral by 2050.

Shell has had plenty of time to make changes, the plaintiffs say. As well, the organization has been aware of its negative impact for decades. The groups say it is now acting unlawfully by expanding its fossil fuel production.

Shell is violating article 6:162 of the Dutch civil code and articles 2 and 8 of the European convention on human rights, the coalition says. The group says Shell is putting lives in danger when other companies like Danish Oil and Natural Gas prove there are viable alternatives with considerably fewer risks to human life. 

Urgenda’s Precedent

Precedent could be good news for the environmentalists. The Dutch Supreme Court upheld a 2015 ruling last year that forces the government to reduce the Netherlands’ environmental impact. The non-profit Urgenda Foundation filed the lawsuit.

Last December’s decision ruled that the Dutch government was morally obliged to take urgent and meaningful steps to reduce emissions. The case was the first of its kind to see citizens hold their government accountable for climate action. The court ruled that the country must reduce 1990’s levels by at least 25 percent by the end of 2020.

“This is a unique lawsuit with potentially significant consequences for the climate and the fossil fuel industry globally,” Pols, told the Guardian.

Shell produces one percent of all emissions every year, according to the plaintiffs. They also allege Shell has known about its impact on the climate for at least the last 60 years. And, they claim, by the 1980s, it had significant awareness about its disastrous impact.

The coalition also contends that Shell changed course in 2007, after making a sustainability pledge in the ‘90s. That pivot was toward more harmful fossil fuels, including shale gas, which is considered among the most polluting. And, the group says, this was going on while PR campaigns promoted Shell as leaning into sustainable and climate-friendly practices.

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