Majority of US Voters Back Legal Action Against Big Oil

Edward Carver
A protester at a Big Oil convention in Houston, Texas, on March 19, 2024. (Photo: Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for Climate Power)

May 28, 2024

A new poll shows public appetite for not just civil action but also criminal prosecution, and district attorneys are showing "real, serious interest" in the idea, one expert said.

A majority of U.S. voters support civil lawsuits against fossil fuel companies for their role in creating the climate crisis, while roughly half support criminal charges, a new poll from Data for Progress found.

The poll results, released Tuesday, indicate support for the dozens of civil cases against Big Oil currently in U.S. courts, many of which were brought by municipalities or states. In a sample of over 1,000 respondents, 62% of likely voters said that they supported legal accountability for oil and gas companies for "their contributions to climate change," including 84% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans.

"Voters strongly want to see companies held accountable for their harmful actions," Grace Adcox, a climate strategist at Data for Progress, toldThe Guardian.

"These national findings show these cases may be able to earn popular support, particularly in blue jurisdictions," she added.

Public interest groups have supported the civil cases and pushed for the U.S. Department of Justice to also take civil action against fossil fuel companies, which, the lawsuits generally argue, spread disinformation about the climate consequences of their products for many decades and continue to block substantive climate action. The case against Big Oil has been strengthened by improved attribution science, which can show the links between climate change and extreme weather events such as forest fires. Many experts draw comparisons to lawsuits once brought against Big Tobacco.

The uptick in legal activity is by no means unique to the U.S.—there are thousands of lawsuits against fossil fuel companies around the world. Yet the new poll does touch on an emerging idea among American experts.

In addition to its broader findings, Data for Progress found that 49% of likely voters support criminal charges against Big Oil—68% of Democrats and 32% of Republicans—while just 39% oppose the idea.

So far, there have been no criminal prosecutions of Big Oil companies or executives anywhere in the world. Last week, a group of French citizens and nonprofits filed a criminal complaint against TotalEnergies, a French petroleum multinational; the prosecutor has three months to decide whether to take the case.

Experts said the poll results showed how an American jury might view such a case. "It gives you an indication of what a cross-section of citizens on a jury might do with this kind of evidence," Chesa Boudin, former San Francisco district attorney, told the Guardian.

"The fact that this hasn't been done before may lead many to say, well, it can’t be done, there’s no precedent. But there was no precedent for anything until there was," he added.

Two experts made the case for criminal homicide charges against Big Oil in a paper in Harvard Environmental Law Review:

Fossil fuel companies learned decades ago that what they produced, marketed, and sold would generate 'globally catastrophic' climate change. Rather than alert the public and curtail their operations, they worked to deceive the public about these harms and prevent regulation of their lethal conduct. They funded efforts to call sound science into doubt and confuse their shareholders, consumers, and regulators. They poured money into campaigns to elect or install judges, legislators, and executive officials hostile to any litigation, regulation, or competition that might limit their profits.

The paper, which was officially published only recently but was first written and reported on by Common Dreams last year, was co-authored by David Arkush of the nonprofit Public Citizen, which has long advocated for holding Big Oil to account and which teamed up with Data for Progress on the new poll, according to The Guardian.

The idea of criminal prosecution has received "real, serious interest" from several district attorneys' offices, Aaron Regunberg, senior counsel at Public Citizen, told the newspaper.


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[Top photo: A protester at a Big Oil convention in Houston, Texas, on March 19, 2024. (Photo: Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for Climate Power)]