In France, climate protesters block the entrance to Total's headquartersTotal, targeted by climate protesters earlier this year, also faces a legal challenge from groups that say it is not living up to French law requiring companies to combat climate change. Photo credit: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

More than a dozen French communities and environmental organizations say that Total, one of France’s largest oil and gas companies, is not meeting its legal obligation to respond to the climate crisis.

A letter sent on Tuesday by the non-profit organizations Notre Affaire à Tous, Sherpa, Zea, Les Eco Maires and 14 French local governments informed Total they would file suit against the company. The letter ramped up legal pressure that began last year when the organizations and communities sent a less formal letter asking Total to comply with French law.

Total responded with a newly published plan, but the organizations and communities say it still does not account for the impacts of its operations on climate change, now required by law in France.

The potential plaintiffs have said Total’s “vigilance plan does not include any appropriate action to mitigate the risks and prevent serious harm resulting from climate change.” They have also criticized the plan for discussing ways in which climate change is likely to affect Total’s own operations, but remaining silent on the larger societal climate impacts resulting from its business activity.

They also say the revised plan is insufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The formal letter of notice was sent after members of the communities and organizations met with representatives from Total to discuss the company’s compliance with the French Duty of Vigilance Law, which went into effect in March 2017. The law requires large companies operating in France to establish a plan that identifies and prevents human rights violations, environmental damage or health risks. This would be the first known suit aimed at forcing a corporation to meet its requirements under that law.

“Total does not respect its commitments and [is leading] us straight to disaster,” said Olivier Dubuquoy, with the nonprofit environmental organization Zea, adding that Total’s plan remains incompatible with meeting the commitments of the Paris Agreement.

The potential plaintiffs warned Total last year to update its vigilance plan by March 2019 or face legal action.

Total said its vigilance plan complies with the law.

“Although the risks associated with climate change are of a different nature from those mentioned above, which led us not to consider the risks related to our greenhouse gas emissions as falling under this new legislation,” Total said in a letter sent to the plaintiffs in January. “As this risk is dealt with elsewhere in our reference document, Total’s board of directors has agreed that Total’s vigilance plan, which will be included in the management report published in 2019, will deal with risks related to climate change.”

Sandra Cossart, director of Sherpa, said Total has known since March 2017 that it was obligated to include climate change under the duty of vigilance law. She said companies can no longer ignore the risks and must do everything possible to combat climate change.

“Yet climate change is currently completely ignored by Total’s plan of vigilance—it’s an aberration,” said Cossart.

Total said the meeting was a first step toward meeting its obligations.

“This meeting allowed us to explain the strategy we are implementing by developing in particular in natural gas and low-carbon electricity, so as to contribute positively to the implementation of the Paris Agreement,” Patrick Pouyanné, Total’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Damien Carême, mayor of Grande-Synthe, said cities are on the front lines of climate change. He said mayors are obligated to take whatever action is needed to ensure that children have livable communities in the future.

“We may also welcome those fleeing war and violence, many of which will be caused by climate change in the years to come,” said Carême. “It is time for the carbon majors to stop their pollution, it is time to put an end to acts that destroy the planet and create human misery.”

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