Legal cases hot up against fossil fuel companies

Climate victims file criminal case against bosses of oil firm Total

Case alleges French company’s exploitation of fossil fuel contributed to deaths of victims in extreme weather disasters

A criminal case has been filed against the CEO and directors of the French oil company TotalEnergies, alleging its fossil fuel exploitation has contributed to the deaths of victims of climate-fuelled extreme weather disasters.

The case was filed in Paris by eight people harmed by extreme weather, and three NGOs. The plaintiffs believe it to be the first such criminal case filed against the individuals running a major oil company. The public prosecutor who received the file has three months to decide whether to open a judicial investigation or dismiss the complaint.

The case aims to establish the alleged criminal liability of TotalEnergies’ directors and its major shareholders for deliberately endangering the lives of others, involuntary manslaughter, neglecting to address a disaster, and damaging biodiversity. Such crimes, if proven, are punishable by imprisonment and fines.

Total has been a frequent target for climate cases, with eight known cases, most of which remain active. Climate change litigation against companies and governments is increasing, with many hundreds of cases having been filed around the world.

Notable European successes to date for climate campaigners include Shell being ordered by a Dutch court to almost halve its carbon emissions by 2030, now under appeal. Recent successes are the ruling by the European court of human rights in April that the Swiss government had failed to do enough to cut the country’s emissions, and, earlier in May, the UK high court judging the government’s climate action plan to be unlawful.

One plaintiff in the TotalEnergies complaint, known as William C, lost his mother in the floods brought by storm Alex in south-eastern France in 2020. “I am defending the honour of my mother, who died because of a climate disaster,” he said. “The choices that Total and its shareholders make at the annual general meeting [on Friday] will have a decisive impact on our lives in the future.”

Dr Simon Frémaux, at Alliance Santé Planétaire, one of the NGOs filing the case, said: “Climate change is the world’s greatest health emergency. TotalEnergies and the other oil and gas companies are perfectly aware of what they are doing. Once you’re aware of what you’re doing, you can’t say you’re not responsible.”

The other individual plaintiffs are from Zimbabwe, Belgium, the Philippines, and Greece. All say they were harmed by storms, floods or wildfires, which scientific studies have shown were made worse by global heating. Hundreds of these “attribution” studies have shown extreme weather events have been made more intense and more frequent by the emissions from fossil fuel burning.

Dr Joyce Kimutai, at the University of Cape Town and who works on attribution studies, said: “The fossil fuel industry will continue to expand their businesses and cause suffering to people as long as they know that the law can’t hold them accountable.”

Total is one of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world and its products have resulted in more than 14bn tonnes of CO2 being emitted since 1971, when researchers say the company was aware of the role of fossil fuels in causing harmful climate change. The International Energy Agency said in 2021 that no new oil and gas fields could be developed if global heating was to be limited to the 1.5C limit above preindustrial levels in the international Paris agreement.

The plaintiffs say Total has announced the development of numerous new oil and gas projects since 2021 and continues to explore for more. They claim Total’s directors and shareholders made this choice to maximise profits.

In the French legal system, when a complaint concerns multiple people or companies as potentially responsible, the prosecutor can decide whom to prosecute. The plaintiffs in the Total case claim CEO Patrick Pouyanné, the company’s directors and its major shareholders all have “superior responsibility” due to their role in the company’s strategic decisions.

In 2023, the directors of Shell were personally sued in the UK over their climate strategy, which the claimants said put the company at risk. However, the case was dismissed by both the high court and, subsequently, the court of appeal.

Claire Nouvian, at Bloom, another of the NGOs filing the complaint against Total, said: “Past decisions of TotalEnergies’ board of directors and main shareholders have proven that those who have a financial interest in the destruction of the world are not apt to take responsible decisions. We are determined to do everything it takes to stop climate criminals.”

Total declined to comment.

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