Fossil fuel companies are suing governments across the world for more than $18bn (£13bn) after action against climate change has threatened their profits, according to research conducted by campaign group Global Justice Now and provided exclusively to Sky News.
Five energy companies, including British companies Rockhopper and Ascent, are using a legal process that allows commercial entities to sue governments under international laws governing trade agreements and treaties.
These corporate arbitration courts operate outside of a country’s domestic legal system.
According to Global Justice Now, which has collated publicly available information, five of the largest lawsuits under way are being brought by TC Energy, RWE, Uniper, Rockhopper and Ascent Resources.
The $18bn they are collectively suing for is almost a quarter of the entire climate funding provided by developed nations for developing ones, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development’s (OECD) most recent assessment.
Rockhopper is currently suing the Italian government for $325m (£234.8m) in a dispute related to a ban on offshore oil drilling close to the coastline.
Ascent is asking for $118m (£163.3m) from Slovenia after it passed legislation requiring environmental assessments for fracking.
Canada based TC Energy, the company behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, is suing the US government for $15bn (£10.9bn) after the Biden administration cancelled the project, citing the fight against climate change.
Meanwhile German companies RWE and Uniper are suing the Dutch government for $1.6bn (£1.16bn) and $1.06bn (£768m) each following the Dutch government’s move to phase out coal and shut down coal-fired power plants by 2030.
The majority of the cases are being brought under the Energy Charter Treaty, and are being hosted within the International Centre for The Settlement of Investment Disputes, a branch of the World Bank.
The Energy Charter Treaty was created after the end of the Cold War and was designed to provide a stable, transparent legal framework that protected foreign investors as energy markets opened up.
Global Justice Now trade campaigner Jean Blaylock told Sky News: “Fossil fuel companies should be paying to fix the climate crisis they caused, but instead they want a payout.
“They’re suing governments who take climate action through secretive corporate courts, massively increasing the cost of climate action”.
She added: “These courts are built into trade deals and operate outside of and supersede domestic courts and legal systems. That means a country that passes meaningful legislation to phase out fossil fuels could face a multi-billion dollar fine, despite acting entirely legally. It’s utterly undemocratic.
“These cases are only becoming more common as governments commit to climate action. World leaders may finally be waking up to the threat of the climate and ecological crisis, but fossil fuel companies are holding them to ransom, demanding ever-greater pay-outs through corporate courts.
“When world leaders gather in Glasgow, they’ll make lofty promises on climate action, but it will all be for nought if fossil fuel companies can sue governments into a state of climate paralysis. It could make a mockery of pledges at COP26.”
Global Justice Now campaigners say that the UK is a hub for the international arbitration system and that all, but two of the top 30 law firms, involved in the lucrative industry have offices in London.
Protestors are planning to gather outside these law and energy firms on Friday.
A spokesperson for Rockhopper told Sky News: “The Energy Charter Treaty is designed to provide a stable platform for energy sector investments. The Italian government issued licences and encouraged significant investment in oil and gas exploration, based on this platform.
“Clearly it is not equitable to change the rules halfway through. It is also important to note that those rule changes made by the Italian government were not related to climate change and that Italy continues to produce significant quantities of oil and gas within 12 miles of the coast.”
A spokesperson for German company RWE said: “RWE is not suing the Dutch government for deciding to phase out coal. We expressly support the energy transition in the Netherlands and associated measures to reduce carbon emissions.
“[But] the Dutch law does not provide for the resulting disruption to the property of affected companies. We do not consider this right.”
“RWE has therefore filed a request for arbitration against the Netherlands at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes [ICSID] in Washington under the Energy Charter Treaty.”
A spokesperson for Ascent Resources told Sky News: “Slovenia’s Ministry of Health, Ministry of Infrastructure, the Institute of the Republic of Slovenia for Nature Conservation, the Forestry Institute of the Republic of Slovenia, the Chemical Office of the Republic of Slovenia and the Conservation Institute of the Republic of Slovenia all concluded that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was not required.
“The ARSO [Slovenian Environment Agency] decision was therefore not based on the recommendations of Slovenia’s own experts and, furthermore, it contradicted the opinions they gave.
“It is therefore manifestly arbitrary and unreasonable.”
A spokesperson for Uniper said: “The Dutch government has announced its intention to shut down the last coal-fired power plants by 2030 without compensation.
“Uniper is convinced that shutting down our power plant in Maasvlakte after only 15 years of operation would be unlawful without adequate compensation.
“International law provides a different standard of investment protection open to investors from other countries in international courts. The international tribunal is appointed by both parties, i.e. the Dutch state and Uniper.
“We are convinced that such an international tribunal will also form an objective opinion.”
TC Energy said that it was unable to comment further on a legal matter.