By Dana Drugmand
Chevron Corp., one of the defendants in a batch of climate change nuisance lawsuits by communities in California, contends that the suits are meritless, but just in case the company is deemed liable for carbon pollution, it wants the Norwegian state-owned oil company Statoil to shoulder some of the liability burden.
In an interesting move that seems designed to hedge its own culpability, Chevron filed a complaint for indemnity and contribution against Statoil in December in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
“Chevron denies that Plaintiffs are entitled to any relief on their Complaints,” the company’s complaint states. “However, in the event that Chevron is held liable to Plaintiffs, Chevron is entitled to indemnity and/or contribution from Statoil.”
According to the Statoil website, the Norwegian energy giant operates in more than 30 countries and is the world’s largest offshore driller. The Chevron complaint cites Statoil’s production numbers, including approximately 251,000 barrels of oil per day just in its U.S. business. Statoil did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chevron argues that since Statoil also produces and sells large amounts of petroleum, it should be held to the same standard of liability in these lawsuits.
“Basically, when you have multiple parties potentially liable for damages and not all of them have been named in the lawsuit defendants can and will file these types of third party complaints against others,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “ It is one way of attempting to bring them into the case.”
Indeed, Chevron indicates in its filing that its attempt to shift the blame goes beyond Statoil, stating, “this third-party complaint is one of many that Chevron expects to file should this case proceed past motions to dismiss.”
Ann Carlson, environmental law professor and co-direct of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, said Chevron appears to be appealing to the global nature of climate change in trying to implicate other fossil producers.
“I don’t view the move as demonstrating a fear of actual liability so much as a strategic move to paint a more complicated picture about global contributors to climate change,” she said.
Such legal maneuverings are expected in a complex liability case.
“I expect there is already wrangling over insurance coverage and other related issues as well,” said Sean Hecht, professor of policy and practice and co-executive director of the Emmett Institute at UCLA. “It’s normal to see concerns about indemnification arise early in a case of this complexity and scope, regardless of a defendant’s view of its ultimate litigation risk.”
“Norway is viewed as a climate leader and impressively green,” Carlson added. “But much of its wealth comes, of course, from oil production in the North Sea, and is a key part of its generous welfare state. Bringing Statoil in as a defendant is meant to show that the good guys are also responsible for a significant percentage of global emissions.”
Attribution science, however, shows that Chevron bears more responsibility for historical emissions than Statoil.
A study by Richard Heede in 2013 identified 90 companies responsible for nearly two-thirds of carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution. These “carbon majors” include investor-owned corporations, state-owned companies, and government-run operations in countries like China and the former Soviet Union. For state-owned and investor-owned companies, Chevron tops the list. According to Heede’s research, it contributed 3.52 percent of global emissions from 1751-2010. Statoil is a carbon major but it doesn’t make the top 20, with its calculated share of emissions at 0.30 percent. The top five in Heede’s study are Chevron, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, BP and Gazprom.
“It’s up to the courts to apportion liability, not Chevron. Chevron’s attempt to draw in another oil company is a tactic to shield itself from liability,” said Kristin Casper, Greenpeace Canada’s litigation counsel for the global climate justice and liability campaign.
“The move is just another fancy way of muddying the water by repeating the tired industry mantra that ‘everyone is responsible for climate change, so no one can be held accountable, especially not us,’” she added. “Chevron is trying to intimidate the court and delay the legal actions from going forward with this cynical tactic. It’s time to talk about the insane profits the oil industry and executives have made for decades while misleading the public about the risks of climate change and leaving cities to foot the bill for adapting to the climate crisis.”