Dec 11, 2019 - Energy & Environment

The limits of Exxon's big legal victory on climate change

Illustration of a gavel hitting Earth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

ExxonMobil notched a big win in the New York Supreme Court, but don't expect the victory to inoculate Big Oil against several other courtroom challenges over global warming.

Catch up fast: A judge ruled yesterday that the state's attorney general failed to show that the oil giant misled investors about the costs of addressing climate change. The decision called the claims "hyperbolic."

The big picture: Big Oil is facing a widening set of legal fights on climate change. Multiple attorneys said the decision based on New York fraud statutes will not spill into the cases that rest on separate allegations about costs to local governments from climate change.

  • "I don’t see today’s ruling as having any real effect on the other climate litigation involving municipalities alleging that oil companies created a public nuisance," UCLA law professor Ann Carlson tells Axios.
  • "The New York case involves is a very specific set of facts under a very specific state statute that is unique to the state," said Carlson, who does pro bono consulting for some municipalities that have brought cases.

But, but, but: The ruling could affect litigants who bring cases with securities fraud claims in other jurisdictions, one expert tells Axios.

  • "[W]hile the New York opinion is certainly not precedential in federal courts or another state court, the judge’s opinion will be relevant to other cases considering similar questions," Harvard's Hana V. Vizcarra says.
  • "There is nearly no previous case law directly addressing climate-related information, so this case will definitely be looked to as a reference in cases involving corporate assessments of climate change risks," says Vizcarra, a lawyer with Harvard Law School’s Environmental & Energy Law Program.

The New York decision, while a clear win for Exxon, had a thin silver lining for activists as Judge Barry Ostrager noted what the decision wasn't about.

"Nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases in the production of its fossil fuel products."
— Judge Ostrager

Where it stands: In October, Massachusetts filed a fraud case against Exxon in state court there.

  • The Boston Globe explores the similarities and differences between that suit — which also goes after Exxon's claims in its advertising — and the New York case.

Go deeper:

Editor's note: This piece was updated to add info on Ann Carlson's pro bono work.

Go deeper