The following is a contributed article by Richard D. Kauzlarich, a former U.S. ambassador and the co-director of the Center for Energy Science and Policy at George Mason University.
The landscape for climate change litigation underwent a seismic event on Dec. 10 when the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of ExxonMobil in a lawsuit brought by the State of New York.
The lawsuit, originally stemming from an investigation by former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and later pursued by current Attorney General Letitia James, alleged that the company misled shareholders over climate change accounting practices. On Dec. 10, Justice Barry Ostrager of the New York Supreme Court said the case was "without merit."
In truth, the case argued by Schneiderman and James was deeply flawed from the beginning. Shortly before the judge's ruling, James opted to withdraw two counts of fraud against ExxonMobil based on insufficient evidence. The case was wobbling from the start.
The Wall Street Journal has called the whole fiasco a "Parody of a Climate Trial," only adding to the growing belief that show trials such as this one and a similar case in Massachusetts are more about grabbing headlines than tackling climate change and rising global emissions.
Why? Because Schneiderman and James spent nearly half a decade attempting to prove that ExxonMobil misled investors over climate change, only to have Justice Ostrager conclude, "The Office of the Attorney General offered no testimony from any investor who claims to have been misled." The Attorney General's office could not produce a single ExxonMobil shareholder who claimed to have been deceived.
In the end, the group most hurt was the taxpayers of New York who saw valuable time and resources wasted in the calculated targeting of one of the world's largest energy producers for political purposes. As Justice Ostrager explained, "The trial was the culmination of three and one-half years of investigation and pre-trial discovery that required ExxonMobil to produce millions of pages of documents and dozens of witnesses for interviews and depositions."
When the trial was over, New Yorkers got nothing for their investment of tax dollars in the case.
Climate change solutions
Maybe more unfortunate, the case also distracted valuable attention from solutions that are actually advancing the fight against climate change. For example, practical solutions, such as enhanced natural gas use, are already helping to lower emissions in the United States and abroad.
With demand for power expected to boom by over 50%, more natural gas is a common sense approach to fighting global temperature rise. U.S. producers are already seeing a marked increase in natural gas use and the fuel is quickly becoming the world's go-to fuel to cut greenhouse gas emissions while also backing up intermittent wind and solar.
With the growth of renewable power sources flattening, infrastructure development, especially as it relates to natural gas, should be a top priority for policymakers and bureaucrats.
This was underscored recently when utilities in New England were forced to import Russian liquefied natural gas in January of 2018 because the region lacked pipeline capacity to use American gas supplies. Similarly, some Asian nations remain unable to meet their own demand for natural gas, meaning the U.S. has a strong opportunity to solidify its place as a major exporter of natural gas worldwide.
Unlike lawsuits that are doomed to fail, the transition to natural gas actually makes a difference in tackling climate change. In fact, the switch from coal to natural gas to generate electricity has already cut carbon dioxide emissions by a half billion tons and has helped slow global carbon dioxide emissions growth to 0.6% in 2019, down from 2.1% in 2018.
The Energy Information Administration found in November that, from 2005 to 2018, the shift from coal to natural gas for electricity generation resulted in 2,823 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions savings, compared with renewables-related emissions savings of 1,799 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. In other words, the use of natural gas for electricity has resulted in 57% more emissions reductions compared with renewables.
At the moment, natural gas is playing the single most dominant role in reducing global emissions.
Rather than play politics with climate change through lawsuits against energy companies, public officials should work with energy providers to continue investing in innovative practices to keep up with environmental and consumer demands both in the U.S. and abroad.
New York's lawsuit against Exxon Mobil might have been, as Justice Ostrager called it, "without merit," but investments in pipeline infrastructure, lower emission energy sources and advanced technology certainly aren't.
Enhanced natural gas development, not litigation, is how we will win the fight against climate change.