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3 Environmental Lawsuits That Have Helped Society

Image Credit: Matthew Henry

For Big Oil and lobbyists of legislative bodies, money talks. Unfortunately, keeping investors and corporate bigwigs happy often takes precedence over any environmental concerns. Trying to effect real change for the good of the environment can seem impossible at times given the vast amount of power in play.

Sometimes, the only way to enact legislative change for the better is to take corporations and organizations to task in a court of law. Lawsuits are a powerful tool in the fight for environmental change. The following three environmental cases have resulted in positive change for environmental laws and regulations, setting precedents and paving the way for a more sustainable future:

Sierra Club v. Morton, 1972

Sierra Club v. Morton is one of the most important environmental cases in U.S. history. This lawsuit is in regards to a planned Disney ski resort in the Mineral King Valley inside Sequoia National Forest. The Sierra Club was opposed to the construction of the resort on the grounds that it interfered with the preservation of the national park, surrounding forest area, and local wildlife.

After appeals from both sides, the Supreme Court contested that the Sierra Club had no right to sue — it only had an interest in the problem. While Sierra Club took time to amend its complaint and show it had standing to sue, an important piece of legislation passed: the National Environmental Policy Act. This act required Disney to write an environmental impact statement detailing what impact the resort would have on the area. Disney, after reviewing the severe ecological impact of their plans, backed out.

Ultimately, Sierra Club failed in its attempt to sue. Nevertheless, there were positive results from the case.

This case established that, in order to demonstrate legal standing to sue in environmental cases, a plaintiff must prove that they stand to suffer, and that the injury can be traced to the challenged action. Furthermore, the proposed action must be shown to violate statutes within the zone of interest, and it must be remediable by judicial action. This case established a framework that informs environmental lawsuits to this day. For example, a recent lawsuit in Australia regarding Commonwealth Bank’s failure to adequately disclose climate risk follows this structure.

Massachusetts v. The Environmental Protection Agency, 2007

Greenhouse gases have an indisputable effect on the environment. Before 2007, however, very few regulations were in place to protect the environment from their effects. In the face of rising global temperatures, there arose a need for an answer to an important legal question: Does the government have an obligation to regulate the release of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases into the atmosphere that affect both the planet and human health? The answer was given through the verdict of a Supreme Court case in mid-2007.

Just over a decade ago, the Supreme Court made a landmark environmental decision as a result of the case between the state of Massachusetts and the EPA. The state sought to shed light on the environmental issues caused by the federal government’s failure to regulate tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks. The Bush Administration argued that it did not have the right (and would not exercise the authority if it did) to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.

The Supreme Court disagreed, arguing that it needed to be proven that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change — or a reasonable explanation needed to be provided as to why the government would be incapable of restricting pollution. The verdict definitively stated that action needed to be taken to combat climate change, and it needed to be taken immediately.

The ramifications of this verdict have been extremely positive for environmental litigation. The verdict validated the perspective that the government has a responsibility for addressing climate change. In many cases, the consequences were immediate; in 2007, many court cases involving environmental issues across the country were postponed until this verdict was announced. This ruling informed many other lawsuits involving the importance of government regulation to better the environment.

Deepwater Horizon Litigation, Ongoing

Unlike other matters in this list, this incident involves many high-profile lawsuits, several of which are ongoing. With the Deepwater Horizon incident, however, that changed. The BP oil spill on April 20, 2010, was an unprecedented disaster. When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on the Gulf of Mexico exploded due to negligence on the part of BP, 11 people were killed and the equivalent of nearly 5 million barrels of oil were spilled into the Atlantic Ocean. Not only did the explosion have a profound effect on nearby people — 30 percent of all locals suffered from mental illness in the wake of the event — the accident had a global impact, affecting an untold number of people.

So what consequences does BP face? It pled guilty in November 2012, reaching a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to pay $4.5 billion. While that may seem like a lot of money, it’s nothing compared to what the company is being held liable for today. While BP allotted $3.5 billion to the case, the actual costs have skyrocketed beyond that figure; in addition to the $28 billion already spent in cleanup costs and paid out in claims, it may be subject to $18 billion more in penalties.

For far too long have fossil fuel lobbyists protected corporations from being held responsible for their impact on the environment. This litigation provides a clear message in a language that Big Oil and its investors understand: You have a responsibility to protect the planet and the people on it. While the net worth of BP has not suffered drastically, the company is being held culpable for its actions against the environment. Indeed, it is still working to rebuild its reputation.


Devin prides himself on being a jack of all trades; his career trajectory is more a zigzag than an obvious trend, just the way he likes it. He pops up across the Pacific Northwest, though never in one place for… [Read more about Devin Morrissey]


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