'Every single change we make matters': UBC faculty, students part of campaign to sue Big Oil

Some UBC faculty and students are suing Big Oil.

On June 15, over 150 people gathered on Zoom for the launch of the Sue Big Oil campaign, a movement led by West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL). The campaign's goal is to sue global oil and gas corporations for climate damages experienced by BC taxpayers.

Dr. Avi Lewis, a UBC geography professor, is one the lead campaign endorser.

“​​The reality is that there are enough new fossil fuel projects in development and operation to shove us into an apocalyptic future of three degrees celsius of warming or more,” said Lewis in an interview with The Ubyssey.

Despite Canada’s support of the Paris Agreement, the country is continuing to approve and support wide-scale fossil fuel projects, he said, citing the Trans Mountain Pipeline as an example of the Canadian government “smothering the planet” while making “obscene profits.”

Last year, the National Observer said Canada was among the “world’s worst carbon emitters,” with the country’s carbon footprint tied closely to the extraction of fossil fuels for export.

Julia Kidder, a PhD student and the climate communications specialist at WCEL, explained the reasoning behind the launch of this lawsuit.

“It is the oil and gas industry that actually removes oil, gas and coal from the ground, refines it, markets it, etc,” she wrote in an emailed statement to The Ubyssey.

Kidder explained that if WCEL is successful in suing Big Oil, the implications of the judicial decision would filter through the entire fossil fuel economy. Thus, the lawsuit would affect other climate crisis-contributing industries such as plastics, cement and agriculture.

When a class action lawsuit is filed against a corporation, it serves as an “immediate risk” that must be disclosed to the corporation’s shareholders and investors. Kidder said the litigation forces oil companies to include the “costs of their toxic products” on their balance sheets.

“Ultimately, this is about changing the fossil fuel industry’s culture of impunity,” Kidder said.

Currently, the campaign is in stage one, focused on collecting signatures and mobilizing support as municipal elections approach. With the help of local governments, a class action lawsuit can be launched against Big Oil.

Though the idea of a lawsuit targeting transnational corporations might sound ambitious, Lewis explained lawsuits like this have been brought up and won.

The campaign website mentions a case in the Netherlands where the environmental organization MillieuDefensie won its lawsuit against Shell — though the company is currently appealing. The Dutch court ordered Shell to “accelerate its efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions” in battling the climate crisis.

“Every single change we make matters and creates a safer future for everyone on Earth,” said Lewis. He emphasized that the climate crisis is an “incremental phenomenon,” in that there is still time to make a “huge difference” in what kind of future people want to live in.

His motivations to sue Big Oil lie in his belief that “we need to be fighting [the climate crisis] through every institution in society.”

“We’re knocking on the door of Big Oil to say it’s time to pay your share.”