RICO Charges to Whack Climate “Goodfellas”

May 22, 2023

Above, Josh Pearce on fossil fuel’s increasing vulnerability to Tobacco-style lawsuits. The noose is tightening.


The flood-prone city of Hoboken, New Jersey, sued Exxon, Chevron, and other oil companies three years ago, hoping to put them on trial for deceiving the public. Like other lawsuits set in motion by “Exxon Knew” investigations, Hoboken made the case that they breached state consumer protection laws by hiding the risks of burning fossil fuels.

But the lawsuit recently took a novel twist. Hoboken’s lawyers amended the complaint in late April, alleging that Big Oil had violated the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, as first reported by the accountability site ExxonKnews. New Jersey’s statute is modeled after a federal RICO law passed in 1970 designed to take down organized crime. These racketeering lawsuits aren’t just for the Mafia anymore; they’ve also been successful against tobacco companies, such as Philip Morris, and pharmaceutical executivestied to the opioid epidemic.

It could be the start of a new wave of climate lawsuits, said Korey Silverman-Roati, a fellow at Columbia Law School. Thirty-three states and two U.S. territories have RICO laws, and judgments in these cases can award plaintiffs triple the damages. The use of RICO is another sign that cities and states are trying to learn from “the successes and failures of the tobacco litigation movement and the opioid litigation movement,” Silverman-Roati said.

It’s already proving to be a big year for climate court cases. Last month, the Supreme Court rejected petitions from Chevron, Shell, BP, and other companies in many cases filed by cities and states, unleashing lawsuits to proceed in state courts that had been stuck in limbo for years. This week, the court also allowed Hoboken’s case to move forward, potentially toward a jury trial. The city aims to make the oil giants pay hundreds of millions of dollars for updating local infrastructure to withstand stronger storms, rising seas, and other effects of climate change. 

New York Times:

The legal headaches for Big Oil are spreading. The latest company to land in court is Eni, the Italian giant.

Today, I want to talk about lawsuits against oil companies and how the sheer volume and complexity of cases around the world may lead to change.

Last week, Greenpeace and other groups, along with 12 private citizens of Italy, sued Eni in Rome, saying the company was well aware of the climate damage caused by its product but chose to ignore the harm and keep pumping oil anyway.

If that legal tactic sounds familiar, that’s because it is. And, it appears to be effective.

The central legal tactic in the Eni suit started making the rounds after 2015, when journalists uncovered documents showing that company researchers at Exxon, starting in the 1970s, had made remarkably accurate projections of just how much the burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet. For years after those projections, however, Exxon continued to publicly cast doubt on climate science and cautioned against moving away from burning fossil fuels.

Since then, we’ve learned that other companies, including Shell, also knew about the dangers of fossil fuels and climate change. So did automakers and the coal industry, journalists and researchers have found.

The result has been dozens of lawsuits by organizations and governments accusing Exxon, Shell and other companies of public deception. The plaintiffs are demanding billions of dollars in climate damages.

The Shell case, in the Netherlands, showed the kind of impact that these lawsuits can have. In 2021, a court found that Shell was liablefor causing climate change and ordered the company to cut its emissions. The case used the company’s early knowledge of climate science as one of its central arguments. The company has denied wrongdoing and has appealed the decision.

Exxon also denies wrongdoing.

The suit against Eni is widely regarded as the first of its kind in Italy. The company said it would “prove in court the groundlessness of the lawsuit” as well as “the correctness of its actions and its transformation and decarbonization strategy.”

“The net of climate accountability isn’t just widening, it’s also tightening,” said Geoffrey Supran, a professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami who focuses on the history of climate disinformation.

It’s widening, he said, because the revelations in every case are helping to drive more lawsuits in a wide range of jurisdictions, most recently Italy, involving an equally wide range of plaintiffs.

Digging through corporate documents, Supran noted — as lawyers, researchers, journalists and even members of Congress have been doing — has yielded damning evidence.

“For all the skeletons we’ve already found in Big Oil’s closet, in reality we’ve only been looking through the keyhole,” he said. “There’s this kind of avalanche of discoveries now building that is helping to strengthen, and I think inspire, these cases.”

Moreover, Supran told me, the net is also tightening, because, by coming from many directions all at once, these cases “may spread the defense thin.” Meaning, the number and the complexity of cases could eventually prove too much for oil and gas companies to handle despite their vast resources.


6 Responses to “RICO Charges to Whack Climate “Goodfellas””

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    Gosh. Exxon knew that burning gasoline would create CO2 which would accumulate in the atmosphere and cause some global warming at some point in the future.

    But everyone on the planet knew that. And everyone on the planet was twisting their ignition keys all the same. James Hanson, I am pretty sure, drove a car.

    Meanwhile, there are government agencies all around the world whose responsibility it is to protect the environment. And not one of them said Exxon was wrong to sell their product, a product which, it must be pointed out, was essentially inert to the environment unless somebody not named Exxon burned it.

    Indeed, if Exxon did NOT sell their products, civilization would come crashing to a halt, and millions if not billions of people would die.

    And yet we are supposed to think that this is grounds for a suit? I despise Exxon, and think they should be prosecuted for their disinformation campaign, but this truly seems absurd. Trying to make Exxon out as our scapegoat is pathetic.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      As with tobacco sellers, there’s a fraud component associated with corporate profits.

      Also, note that much of civil suits—like it or not—are more about “deepest pockets” than actual responsibility (as with the anaesthetist with the best medical insurance paying for the bad outcome of a child born with a long-established birth defect).

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        “As with tobacco sellers, there’s a fraud component associated with corporate profits.”

        And I don’t see what Exxon’s supposed fraud was. They claimed you could drive your car on their fuel and they were right about that. They never claimed you could inhale the smoke from burning their product and it would be safe for you. And their product does not cause direct physical harm to you when used as directed.

        I think the tobacco analogy doesn’t work very well, if at all. And I don’t how if Exxon is complicit in something vague and dark because they sold the fuel, how every person who ever drove a car or heated their home with fossil fuel is not equally complicit.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          One clear difference between tobacco and fossil fuels is that nicotine is physiologically powerfully addictive.

          Another difference is the complicity of the auto and truck industry. I need to watch Who Killed the Electric Car? again and see if we need a remake (“Who delayed the Electric Car”?) to look into Big Oil’s possible influence on automakers, including the pushback on reducing fleet mpg. Who gets the blame between them for diesel engines and their nasty toxic NOx and SOx.

          “Clean” diesel:

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      “Indeed, if Exxon did NOT sell their products, civilization would come crashing to a halt, and millions if not billions of people would die.”

      We would have made the transition away from fossil fuels much earlier had the fossil fuel industry not doubt-mongered the science or paid lobbyists to stroke politicians for decades.

      Government collaboration with that, as with the W. administration allowing oil people to edit official reports, or with Texas pols owned and operated by oil&gas donors, is an additional problem. Consider Ken Cuccinelli using his power as Virgina AG to attack Michael Mann’s work by threatening his position at the University of Virginia.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        I agree with you – disinformation is their crime. I just don’t see that selling gasoline to a willing public and with the blessing of the EPA is a crime.

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