COLUMN: It’s time for Big Oil to face the consequences

Al Lehmann writes financial compensation won’t cool the world, but it may provide victims respite

Al Lehmann

By Al Lehmann

If someone were to hurt you, really hurt you, and do so with full knowledge that their behaviour was doing, or was likely to do that damage, would you not feel the right for compensation? Such damage might be financial, reputational, or even physical.

Some disputes regarding perceived financial wrongs may be addressed through the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments. Case officers can investigate and recommend mitigation for consumer complaints regarding credit card bills, loans, and other financial disagreements.

The office has no enforcement authority, though. For that, government regulations and/or the courts are needed.

The courts may provide a plaintiff compensation through the law of torts. Tort law applies the legal theory that those who harm others may be accountable to both the victims and to society for recompense.

According to Harvard Law School, tort law “defines what counts, in the eyes of the law, as wrongfully injuring another person—assault, fraud, libel, malpractice, negligence, and nuisance are all torts.”

The law “gives victims of such wrongs an opportunity to obtain a suitable remedy from the wrongdoer.”

Cigarette manufacturers have been forced by courts to be liable for damages to consumers of their products.

In a recent case, a Quebec court awarded $15 billion in damages to thousands of smokers, the judgment in a case first filed in 1998.

The case may yet be appealed to the Supreme Court. Apparently, the wheels of justice can turn very slowly.

It is arguable that there are several gigantic torts that have been committed globally over the past centuries. Is it now possible that these cases might be heard in the near future and remedies awarded?

Wrongs associated with the colonization of the Americas were terrible. Land expropriation on an enormous scale, genocidal violence, unequal protection under the law, and the cultural warping imposed by residential schools and the reserve system are an interrelated constellation of old, basically uncompensated wrongs. The national government must answer for these.

The murderous enslavement of Africans brought to the Americas is another evil that might theoretically be addressed. Only this month, U.S. Congressional Representative Cory Bush introduced legislation calling for $14 trillion in reparations for Black Americans to atone for the practice of chattel slavery and other subsequent wrongs such as the discrimination embodied in Jim Crow legislation.

Now, less than a year ago, West Coast Environmental Law headquartered here in BC began a campaign to sue “big oil,” based on its role in exacerbating the climate change leading to immense environmental damage affecting thousands, perhaps millions of people.

Oil companies have been aware of the growing threat of climate change due to the use of their products for decades.

Their products are causing enormous harm on a variety of fronts all over the world when the products are used for the purposes for which they were designed. Historically, officials at these companies knowingly defrauded the public at large (customers and shareholders alike) by promoting disinformation regarding the threat.

The costs of climate change threaten to be astronomical. Yet the companies who may be accused are reportedly about to record $200+ billion profit for 2022 alone. Understandably, litigants may regard these companies well able to begin repaying damages, no matter how large. Isn’t it, perhaps, about time?

Financial compensation (to whom?!) won’t cool the world, but it might provide victims respite from the horrors that seem to be arriving.

oil & gas