Media Picks Up Novel Legal Theory Suggesting Big Oil Is Homicidal

Oil Rig
by Nick Pope


A new narrative is making its way through major media outlets about major oil corporations: climate change that they purportedly caused is taking lives, and they could be held liable for homicide.

In recent weeks, numerous outlets have run stories or opinion pieces promoting or otherwise examining the novel legal theory, which is the subject of a new paper published by the Harvard Environmental Law Review, according to a Tuesday E&E News report detailing the architects’ efforts to market their idea to prosecutors. The Boston GlobeThe GuardianNewsweekInside Climate News and other outlets have all recently published pieces promoting the idea that leading oil companies could or should be charged with murder for their role in climate change, which the theory’s architects claim has caused thousands of deaths in the U.S.

David Arkush, who runs Public Citizen’s climate program, and Donald Braman, a professor at George Washington University’s law school, articulated the theory in a March paper. Public Citizen is a left-of-center organization founded by failed Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader that, among other things, pressures American International Group (AIG) to stop providing insurance coverage for fossil fuel companies, according to its website and Influence Watch.

“Activists and journalists have called executives of major oil companies ‘mass murderers,’ lamenting that ‘millions of human beings will die so that they can have private planes and huge mansions,’ and a growing chorus of communities devastated by [fossil fuel companies’] lethal conduct have begun to demand accountability,” the authors state in their paper. “But as of this writing, no prosecutor in any jurisdiction has charged [fossil fuel companies] with any form of homicide over climate-related deaths. They should.”

The paper also suggests that the American Petroleum Institute (API), a leading trade association for the oil and gas industry, was involved in the industry’s purported attempts to obscure the effects of emissions.

“The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint,” a spokesperson for API told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

The two authors contend that energy corporations were aware of the warming that emissions from their products and operations would cause for decades, and that those companies decided to mislead the public and obscure what effects those emissions may have. A similar narrative lies at the heart of climate lawsuits that have been filed against energy companies in numerous jurisdictions across the U.S. in recent years.

Arkush wrote a Wednesday piece for Newsweek laying out his theory and referencing these climate lawsuits, opining that the fossil fuel industry’s purported “crimes may be among the, if not the, most consequential in human history.” The Boston Globe ran a similar opinion piece authored by Arkush and another official for Public Citizen on March 17.

The Guardian ran its own piece about the climate homicide theory on March 21, using the headline “Fossil fuel firms could be tried in US for homicide over climate-related deaths, experts say.” Clean Technica, a site that promotes green energy, ran a March 16 piece on the new legal theory with the headline “Climate Criminals — Prosecuting Big Oil For Environmental Crimes.”

Inside Climate News published an April 4 story on the subject, using the headline “Should Big Oil Be Tried for Homicide?” and including excerpts from interviews with the two architects of the climate homicide theory. The pair suggested that the aim is not to punish individuals or seek vengeance, but instead achieve results that would prompt companies to shift their investments away from fossil fuels, according to Inside Climate News’ story.

However, Inside Climate News did quote legal experts who expressed skepticism about the theory’s merits.

“I do not believe that a criminal prosecution on homicide charges against the major oil companies is appropriate or can be sustained,” John Coffee Jr., a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in corporate law, told the outlet.

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Nick Pope is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation. 





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