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SEI research underpins new frontier of climate-related court decisions

SEI's work has been cited in consequential domestic and international decisions against major global polluters.

Oil drilling platforms off Texan coast. Photo: Jay Dickman / The Image Bank / Getty Images.

Date published
21 November 2022
A story from

This impact story is from our 2021 annual report .

A growing number of legal cases ruling against major global polluters are compelling governments and companies to take responsibility for their contributions to the climate crisis. SEI’s work has been cited in consequential domestic and international decisions, with more likely to come.

When the District Court of The Hague in the Netherlands ruled in May 2021 that Shell, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, must cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 45%, it was the world’s first legal decision to hold an oil company liable for climate change.

The ruling came after Milieudefensie, the Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, joined several other non-profit organizations and 17 000 individuals to file a lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell plc in 2019. The decision included emissions associated with burning oil and gas (known as “scope 3” emissions), in effect ruling that Shell must reduce its fossil fuel production.

Authoritative source cited in proceedings

SEI research played a part in the decision, with the judgment quoting two excerpts from the 2019 Production Gap Report. SEI US Climate Policy Program Director Peter Erickson also wrote a letter to the court in December 2020, refuting a Shell-commissioned report issued the previous month and countering its arguments with SEI research and other peer-reviewed scientific sources.

"This is a turning point in history," said Roger Cox, attorney for Friends of the Earth Netherlands. "This case is unique because it is the first time a judge has ordered a large polluting company to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement. This ruling may also have major consequences for other big polluters."

Court rulings become new target in tackling climate change

Legal and climate policy observers have seen legal proceedings become a new frontier of climate action, in the absence of transformative legislation. While the UN Environment Programme pegged the number of climate change litigation cases at 1550 in 38 countries in January 2021, a check of worldwide cases logged by Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law yielded nearly 2000.

The Dutch ruling was followed in August by a US District Court of Alaska ruling that nullified the US Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) approval of a ConocoPhillips oil and gas project in Alaska’s North Slope, citing SEI research in determining that BLM neglected to assess foreign greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the project, as required by federal law.

In January 2022, the US District Court for the District of Columbia invalidated the largest-ever oil and gas lease in American history, again citing SEI research on the flaws in the Department of the Interior’s greenhouse gas emissions analysis.

Legal arguments bolstered by scientific research

The August 2021 and January 2022 decisions were based in part on the precedent set by a November 2020 ruling that was also based on SEI research. It determined that the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) erred in approving an offshore drilling and production facility on the Alaskan coast in the Beaufort Sea, because BOEM likewise failed to properly account for the project’s effects on foreign oil consumption.

A common thread through oil companies’ arguments in these cases is that if they do not produce the oil, other companies would, which, based on his research, Erickson said is a faulty assumption. While courts have rebutted that argument for coal, “these four cases are the first I’m aware of that counter that argument for oil,” he added.

Future effects

Erickson said SEI’s influence in court cases aligns with its purpose. “Our mission is to bridge science and policy,” he said. “Scientists need to show up where decisions are being made and bring the information and science to them.”

Other pending cases that are considering SEI research include a Michigan case evaluating the replacement of an oil pipeline and Juliana v. United States, in which 21 children sued the federal government for depriving them of a habitable planet.

"[This] verdict is in line with the research: if oil majors like Shell reduce their fossil fuel production, it will help reduce global CO2 emissions, as necessary to meet climate goals," said Erickson after the ruling. "Limiting fossil fuel production is an important step, among many, to keep global warming to 1.5°C, as agreed in the Paris Agreement."

Strategy in action

Priority for change

Transitions from fossil energy that address inequality, poverty and political economy

SEI research provides authoritative evidence in influential court cases in Europe and the US against major global polluters, compelling them to take responsibility for their contributions to the climate crisis by radically cutting their fossil fuel production and carbon dioxide emissions.

Type of outcome

Improving decisions

Evidence provided by SEI demonstrates how accepted economic theory can disprove flawed arguments presented by oil companies and reveal how increased production does in fact lead to higher use and carbon dioxide emissions.

Delivering on our priorities