At the end of April, oil giant ExxonMobil announced its 19th discovery of oil off Guyana’s coast - a region regarded by the industry as one of the world's most important new oil and gas resources accessed in the last decade.
But now two Guyanese citizens – a tour guide and a university lecturer – are taking the country’s government to court, arguing that allowing the drilling will exacerbate the climate crisis and that it breaches the government’s legal duty to protect citizens’ and future generations right’ to live in a healthy environment.
ExxonMobil currently produces around 4 billion barrels of oil a day, amounting to around 4 per cent of the world’s current output. It’s activity off the coast of Guyana, south east of Venezuela, is central to its long term crude oil production plans.
According to local reports, Dr Troy Thomas and Quadad De Freitas allege in court documents that Esso Exploration and Production Guyana Ltd, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, is producing oil approximately 120 miles offshore in Guyana’s Exclusive Economic Zone and is emitting greenhouse gases which would not otherwise have been emitted.
They claim that by extracting these reserves for energy purposes the company will emit billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases in the future.
The case will be the first time oil drilling in the Caribbean has been challenged on climate grounds.
According to Guyanese crime and security website Big Smith Newswatch, Dr Thomas and Mr De Freitas argue the Guyanese state “is facilitating the emission of substantial quantities of greenhouse gases, thereby significantly exacerbating and/or contributing to climate change, ocean acidification, and rising sea-levels and making the environment more harmful to health and wellbeing”.
The pair pointed out that as a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Guyana is legally obliged to try to restrict the increase in global temperature to no more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
“The State’s Nationally Determined Contribution of 2015 submitted by the State under the Paris agreement states that Guyana will pursue a low carbon development path,” they said.
The case follows a successful court challenge against ExxonMobil over the length of the environmental permits the company obtained to carry out drilling off Guyana, as a result the permits will expire this year, instead of in 2040, meaning the company must apply for them again.
It also follows another blow to ExxonMobil, after hedge fund activists from tiny investment operation Engine No 1 succeeded in replacing two board members with its own candidates.
In what was described as a “stunning blow” for the oil firm, the new board members will now pile pressure on the company to move in a more environmentally conscientious direction.
“It’s a huge deal. It shows not just that there is more seriousness apparent in the thinking among investors about climate change, it’s a rebuff of the whole attitude of the Exxon board,” Ric Marshall, executive director of ESG Research at MSCI, an investment consultancy, told Reuters.
In another case last week, hailed as a “landmark” decision, Royal Dutch Shell was forced by activists to slash its global emissions by 45 per cent over the next nine years.
The Independent has contacted Exxon Mobil for comment.