Italian oil major ENI lobbied for more fossil fuels despite 1970 internal report warning of dangers; faces lawsuit

The climate lawsuit, if brought to the court, will be the first of its kind in Italy

By Susan Chacko
Published: Thursday 18 May 2023
Photo: iStock

In a first, 12 Italian citizens, Greenpeace Italy and ReCommon, a social development organisation, filed a lawsuit against Italian oil major ENI in May 2023 for the past and future damages, resulting from its contribution to climate change, of which ENI was well aware but chose to ignore for five decades. 

The citizens who joined the lawsuit come from areas severely affected by the impacts of climate change, such as coastal erosion due to rising sea levels, drought and melting glaciers.

Despite knowing about the risks of its products since 1970, ENI, Italy’s largest multinational company and one of seven ‘supermajor’ oil firms in the world, used “lobbying and greenwashing” to push for more fossil fuels. The company had commissioned a study that warned of the “catastrophic” risks that rising carbon dioxide could pose to the climate.

A 1970 report by ENI’s Isvet research centre, accessed by the environmental groups, warned of the “catastrophic” risk the build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) caused by burning fossil fuels can pose to the climate.

The study commissioned by ENI between 1969 and 1970 made clear that left unchecked, rising fossil fuel use would lead to a climate crisis within just a few decades, according to DeSmog, a climate news service.

The climate lawsuit, if brought to the court, will be the first of its kind in Italy. Greenpeace Italy and ReCommon said they intend to file the suit in the civil court of Rome by May 19 and request the hearings begin in November.

The groups are hoping to build on a similar case targeting the Anglo-Dutch oil major Royal Dutch Shell in the Netherlands to force ENI to cut its carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030.

Greenpeace Italy, in its media briefing, said the primary objective of the lawsuit against ENI is to set an important precedent in an Italian court — that the commitments of the Paris Agreement also apply to large private energy companies directly.

The lawsuit also includes ENI’s two main shareholders — the Ministry of Economy and Finance and Cassa Depositi e Prestiti SpA. (Italian development bank).

Rachele Caravaglios, one of the applicants / plaintiffs, said the reason why she decided to join the legal action was that the region where she lives, Piedmont, is already suffering the effects of dramatic drought, as the very low level of rainfall recorded this winter show. And the problem is likely to get worse in the future, she added. 

She said it’s not right that Italy’s main energy supplier, of which the state is the largest shareholder, “can continue year after year, an investment programme that goes against what the best available climate science recommends, limiting our options to create a sustainable, resilient and equitable future for all”.

The 12 plaintiffs, together with Greenpeace Italy and ReCommon, have filed a request for the Rome court to rule whether or not ENI has caused damages through violations of their human rights to life, health and private and family life.

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs also demanded ENI to revise its industrial strategy to reduce emissions by at least 45 per cent by 2030, compared to 2020 levels. In addition, they want Italy’s ministry of economy and finance, an important shareholder of ENI, to adopt an ambitious climate policy to guide its participation in the company in line with the Paris Agreement.

#LaGiustaCausa, #theJustCause, is the name of the campaign promoting the legal action against ENI and is the first initiative of its kind against a private company in Italy.

The report Three shades of green (washing), a working paper by Harvard University, found that the largest European oil, gas, automotive and aviation companies, including ENI, use their social channels to promote fake green pledges and distract public attention from the climate crisis.

Two briefings of Oil Change International May 2022 titled Big Oil Reality Check: Eni and Big Oil Reality Check: Equinor, found that both companies are on the verge of approving a surge of new oil and gas development. 

If ENI and Equinor proceed with all the projects in their 2023 pipeline, ENI could rank as the world’s third worst oil and gas expander this year and Equinor the world’s eighth worst by the total volume of new reserves approved for extraction.

On February 14, 2022, a group of Italian non-profits and environmental movements submitted a climate-related complaint to the National Contact Point of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), alleging the inadequacy of the business plan pursued by ENI. 

The complaint said ENI has committed to net zero emissions by 2050, but its actions run contrary to this goal. The case is still pending.

Globally, the cumulative number of climate change-related cases has more than doubled since 2015, bringing the total number of cases to over 2,000. Around a quarter of these were filed between 2020 and 2022, stated the June 2022 policy report Global trends in climate change litigation: 2022 snapshot.

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