French Oil Giant Ranked As Climate Leader the Same Week It's Sued for Climate Negligence

Illustration for article titled French Oil Giant Ranked As Climate Leader the Same Week It's Sued for Climate Negligence
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A group of local governments and nonprofits in France filed an unprecedented suit against Total SA on Tuesday. They say Total isn’t doing nearly enough to take the existential threat of climate change seriously.


It’s the latest in an increasingly crowded litigation space that has seen oil companies so far avoid any repercussions for wreaking havoc on the climate. But this is the first climate lawsuit against a private company that France has ever seen. And it’s based on a recent French law that opened the door for the new legal challenge.

The new law, called the duty of vigilance, passed in 2017. It requires big corporations to create “vigilance plans” that include protections against any human rights violations or environmental damages that their businesses might cause. For oil companies, the environmental risk of climate change should be an obvious one. Total is one of the top 20 cumulative carbon polluters among Big Oil companies, having pumped 12.35 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere over the past five decades.

Further oil and gas exploration will only further Total’s role in causing the climate crisis. Yet despite that, the suit says Total hasn’t made any reference to the climate crisis in their vigilance plans even as the company tries to talk a good talk. But even though it may not be planning for the damages its causing, Total is trying to brand itself as sustainable like pretty much every other oil company.

“Climate issues are an integral part of our corporate strategic vision,” the company’s website says. “We aim to help keep global warming below 2°C in relation to preindustrial levels by 2100.”

A new report from investment advisory firm Morningstar even praises the Total along with Shell and Spanish oil major Repsol as one of the three oil companies doing the most to reduce their greenhouse gas output. But Total’s actual climate targets are as laughable as this report saying any oil company can be good. The same report praising Total goes on to note that its emissions reduction targets of 15 percent by 2030 are nowhere near what’s needed to keep warming within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of pre-industrial temperatures. In fact, it goes on to state the goal isn’t even compatible with the Internation Energy Agency’s “beyond-2-degree scenario.”

It’s no wonder they’re getting sued. The science is clear that we need to phase out of fossil fuels altogether as soon as possible. Instead, Total is expanding its shale oil and natural gas production. It’s even currently facing another lawsuit from nonprofits, who say the company’s massive drilling and pipeline projects in Uganda will come with human rights abuses and environmental damage. And even the things Total is doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been problematic. They recently spent hundreds of millions of euros to convert a crude oil refinery into a biofuel plant, which could result in massive deforestation.


Here’s hoping this lawsuit will force Total to invest in renewable energy instead of just green branding.

Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

No matter how efficient or climate friendly the oil patch’s operations are, the product gets burned and turned into greenhouse gases (CO2 and water vapor).

Maybe it was a sustainability participation trophy: oil and gas division

An oil company can only do so much tweaking of its supply chain to green up, since the lion’s share of the “wells to wheel” carbon footprint is at the point of combustion by the user. With that said, it would be nice if the oil patch put curbs on fugitive methane emissions throughout the wells to wheels life cycle.

An interesting analysis by the Carnegie Endowment back in 2016 or so:

Breaking Down the Barrel: Tracing GHG Emissions Through the Oil Supply Chain

Best case scenario is easy oil done well (conventional vertical well extraction from high permeability reservoir rock fields). Most of the carbon footprint is burning the products like gasoline, diesel, and other (blue) in the barrel below:

Conventional oil lifecycle carbon footprint is as estimated at 475 kg CO2 equivalent per barrel of oil, as indicated in the link above.

Not good case scenarios in the analysis linked above are the more difficult extraction scenarios like depleted oil wells needing enhanced recovery (steam extraction), shale oil extraction via fracking, and ultra heavy oil like tar sands of Canada and the heavy goo underneath Venezuela.