Exxon Subpoenaed for Plastics Accountability
As the impacts of pervasive plastic pollution grow more visible and more severe around the world, public officials have a duty to ask why. In April, amid increasing public pressure to hold plastic producers accountable, California State Attorney General Rob Bonta announced an investigation into the role ExxonMobil and other plastics and petrochemical companies have played in the mounting plastics crisis, citing evidence that the industry intentionally misled consumers and the public about plastics recycling. CIEL’s work establishing the legal and evidentiary basis for corporate accountability litigation over the last decade has helped build a strong foundation for investigations like this. So, while California’s action may be the first of its kind, it is unlikely to be the last.
Exposing Formosa Plastic Group’s Serial Offenses
From Taiwan to Texas and from Cambodia to Cancer Alley, the track record of the Formosa Plastics Group, one of the world’s largest producers of petrochemicals and plastics, is riddled with environmental, health, safety, and labor violations, including devastating accidents and persistent pollution. CIEL is an active ally to communities organizing against Formosa Plastics operations around the world, such as in St. James Parish, Louisiana, where the company planned to build one of the world’s largest petrochemical complexes. In October, CIEL and partners released a first-of-its-kind report profiling this serial offender to highlight the profound risks that the company – and the entire petrochemicals and plastics industry – poses to human health, human rights, local ecosystems, and the global climate, and to bolster demands for accountability. Thanks to the persistence of frontline defenders and the dogged legal work of our movement partners, permits for the proposed Formosa Plastics complex in St. James Parish have since been suspended or vacated, and the entire project may no longer be feasible!
Mexican Mining Case Showcases an Unjust Investment System
Off the coast of Baja California in Mexico, Odyssey Marine Exploration has plans for an undersea mining project that would dredge 91,000 hectares (350+ square miles) of seabed to extract phosphate for fertilizer, with serious impacts on the region’s marine ecosystems, biodiversity, and fishing communities. In addition to impacts on marine ecosystems and biodiversity in the region, the underwater phosphate mining operations would have serious consequences on the health and livelihoods of fishing communities. But when the denial of an environmental permit put the project on hold, Odyssey Marine exploited the secretive investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) system to bring legal action against the Mexican government and force the project ahead. For decades, CIEL has worked to reform or, better, dismantle the ISDS system precisely because of such corporate abuses. In October 2021, CIEL supported local fishing cooperative Sociedad Cooperativa de Producción Pesquera Puerto Chale in filing an amicus curiae brief opposing Odyssey’s claim and supporting the environmental decision. Though the brief was denied, it garnered support from the Mexican State and one of the arbitrators, who warned that the decision denying input from affected community members would undermine the legitimacy of the arbitration. As CIEL and partners worldwide work to expose the fundamental illegitimacy of the ISDS system, this case demonstrates our critiques are not only justified, but gaining support.
Co-Building Power With Frontline Communities
CIEL has always understood that frontline communities are best placed to advocate for their own futures. But sometimes, they lack the resources, connections to decision makers, or external leverage necessary to push back against dominant corporate interests. That is why we take our lead from the frontlines and work to enable and support communities advance the strategies they choose. That support takes an array of forms – from creating resources for organizers (like a multimedia series exploring the oil, gas, and petrochemical boom in the Permian Basin and a comprehensive web-based toolkit providing detailed, practical advice on how to oppose petrochemical production and expansion), to helping mobilize critically needed financial and technical resources for partners on the frontlines and fencelines, both in the US and in the Global South. Whether we are accompanying Indigenous leaders in seeking accountability at financial institutions, providing legal tools to advocates fighting petrochemical expansion, or expanding the CIEL team to include local campaigners who can support local strategies, the results clearly demonstrate the power and efficacy of equipping frontline leaders to determine their own futures.
Seeking Remedy, Securing Reforms in Chile’s Maipo Valley
Since 2015, CIEL has supported communities in Chile working to stop a destructive hydroelectric project. The Alto Maipo Hydroproject bored tunnels through the Andes Mountains to divert three rivers, damaging glaciers and accelerating desertification along the way. Communities in the Maipo Valley took their advocacy to the accountability mechanisms at both the International Finance Corporation and the Inter-American Development Bank, and they have endured long, bureaucratic processes to seek remedy. Now, the cases are coming to an end. Unfortunately, much of the damage is already done, and our partners in the Maipo Valley likely won’t see any meaningful resolution. However, their persistence has led to historic reforms at the banks, opening the path for others who come after them. As a result of years of advocacy, the Alto Maipo case has spurred conversations on remedy and responsible exit in international development, and led to accountability reforms, zero-tolerance policies for gender-based violence, and improvements in environmental and human rights due diligence.
A Toxic-Free Future Through Global Chemicals Regulation
Toxic chemicals are so pervasive in daily life and in ecosystems that they are pushing us past planetary boundaries – the safe limits for the integrity of Earth system processes. But incremental progress is being made every day in global chemicals governance as we work toward a toxic-free future. In March at the UN Environment Assembly, negotiators passed a mandate to establish a Science-Policy Panel on chemicals, waste, and to prevent pollution. This panel presents an opportunity for deeper research into the toxic impacts of chemicals to inform future regulations, although we must also work to ensure that industry interests do not exploit the process to divert resources and delay urgently needed action at the national and global levels. Then in June at the Stockholm Convention’s Conference of the Parties, CIEL supported partners’ advocacy, which led to a significant victory: States agreed to ban PFHxS – a synthetic “forever” chemical widely used in firefighting foam, carpets, and non-stick cookware, which harms human health and builds up in the environment and the body over time. CIEL remains an active voice in these processes to push for rapid progress on toxic risks and to ensure negotiations are used to promote progress, rather than delay it.
Illegal and unsustainable trade in rosewood species has been devastating West African forests and impacting communities for decades. The crisis has continued even after rosewood was granted protective status under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2017. In response to ongoing advocacy from civil society and demands from States where rosewood grows, the CITES Standing Committee took decisive steps to address this crisis by officially suspending all trade in all rosewood harvested from West Africa since 2017. This was a huge step toward protecting one of the world’s most trafficked wild products, not over the course of years, but in a matter of weeks.
Strengthening the Rights of Future Generations
Even as we celebrate this year’s historic recognition of the Right to a Healthy Environment, CIEL is actively working to continually open new legal frontiers and pathways. A critical component of that effort is ensuring justice and human rights protections not only for our present generation, but for generations yet to come. For the last six years, CIEL has served on the steering committee and drafting group for the Maastricht IV Principles on the Rights of Future Generations. Much like the Maastricht (III) Principles on the Extraterritorial Obligations of States that came before it, the Maastricht IV Process has brought together scores of legal and human rights experts from around the world to help crystallize shared legal principles for intergenerational justice and demonstrate how those principles can and should be operationalized to protect the fundamental rights of future people and peoples. In 2022, we celebrated key milestones in the work as two drafts of the principles were circulated for consultation with experts and stakeholders, in advance of a final launch of the Principles in early 2023.