Lawyers and environmental activists say the much-debated lawsuit against the Guinean government, arguing that oil production is fueling climate change could lead to similar legal action in the region.
The case before the Constitutional Court is the first of its kind in the Caribbean. The allegation is that the oil exploration and production led by the US oil company ExxonMobil on the Guinean coast is unconstitutional.
The right to a healthy environment
Two Guinean citizens filed charges in the Constitutional Court in late May. Defendants’ attorney Melinda Janki said the basics of the case often revolve around the state’s duty to protect the environment for current and future generations.
“We want to test whether that oil production is compatible with the right to a healthier environment,” he says.
This includes estimated greenhouse gas emissions from marine oil fields. According to Jonki, the plaintiffs relied on “exxon calculated” figures in the company’s environmental impact report.
Not only does CO2 emissions from fossil fuels cause climate change, they acidify the oceans, damaging Guyana’s corals and marshes, Janki says.
“It is the citizens who must hold their governments accountable for the common good … we stand for ourselves, for our country and for our planet.”
Guyana’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Office of the Minister of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
“Sustainable Oil Exploitation”
The consortium of ExxonMobil, Hess Corp and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOC-Nexon) have already made eighteen new oil discoveries in the Strobok area off the coast of Guinea. It is one of the largest oil reserves in the world.
An ExxonMobil spokesman said, “Guyana complies with all laws applicable at each stage of the research, development and production stages.” The evaluation of each new project in the country “outlines possible environmental impacts and mitigation.”
The country’s natural resources minister said in April that the government was committed to sustainably exploiting its oil and gas resources to “improve the lives of the Guineans”.
Oil production is expected to earn tens of billions of dollars in the coming years, which are the country’s most needed resources.
Carol Muffett, head of the American Voluntary Charity Center for International Environmental Law, said the lawsuit would “help others fight similar fossil fuel exploitation in the region. We see a rapid evolution in the judiciary and the foundations of every case are getting stronger. ”
The pressure on oil and gas companies is mounting because operators are increasingly going to court to hold companies and governments accountable for the climate impact of their actions.
These lawsuits should force governments to eliminate coal, oil and gas and increase investment in renewable energy sources. Tight emission targets in the context of the Paris Climate Agreement are often among the demands of lawyers.
Last week, a Dutch court ordered oil company Shell to reduce its CO2 emissions by 45 percent from 2030 by 2019. The Dutch-British energy company said it would appeal the decision.
Claimant Argentine legal adviser Dennis van Berkel called the ruling “underground.” According to him, this shows that legal action has proven to be one of the “most effective tools” for forcing climate change.
“Human rights and constitutional obligations still depend primarily on the state,” he said. “However, fossil companies will find it impossible to escape saying, ‘Well, we do what the law requires of us.'”
Global climate issues focus more on the impact on human rights, while investments in fossil fuels are increasingly questionable, said Sam Hunter Jones, a lawyer for the environmental organization Client Earth. “We expect lawsuits filed around the world to apply these principles.”
Those policies are already well established in Latin America. Numerous countries have guaranteed the right of citizens to a healthy environment and nature in constitution or law.
Kayo Borges leads the Climate Law Program at the Institute for Climate and Community. He says many South American countries have “excellent laws and environmental protection.” “But of course there is a huge gap between the formal rules and the ground enforcement of those rules.”
Climate issues in Latin America are often brought about by indigenous peoples. They have sued the government for failing to protect the Amazon rainforest, which spans more than eight countries.
Borges sees a great desire among citizens to put pressure on their governments to reduce deforestation and increase climate action.
“In Brazil and other Amazon countries, these cases often revolve around land use,” he predicts. “They will assess how important rainforest conservation is to fulfill the climate promise.”
Borges previously predicted that resource-rich countries such as Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil would have more climate lawsuits against governments and corporations. He also predicted that youth activists would play a key role.
Until now, climate issues in Latin America have been mainly focused on governments. But Peruvian Saul Luciano Liuya has a lawsuit against German utility RWE.
He spoke at the RWE in 2015 about the company’s role in the climate crisis. A farmer from the city of Huarez beneath the melting Balkaraju glacier that raises the water of Lake Balkocha
Liuya argued that greenhouse gas emissions from RWE’s coal-fired power plants were partly responsible for the melting of the glacier, which threatened to flood his home.
Borges said efforts are underway to weaken environmental laws in some Latin American countries, especially Brazil.
“A regional campaign now involves state and business actors. They are urging governments to remove environmental protection. That is why many of those cases are aimed at enforcing existing rules.”