Total appeared in a Paris court on Wednesday after a challenge brought against the French supermajor by French by environmental groups.
Non-governmental organisations Survie (Survival) and Friends of the Earth (FoE) of France as well as Uganda’s National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) took the action against Total for alleged "failure to elaborate and implement human rights and environmental vigilance".
This is the first legal action of its kind ever undertaken against a major oil company for non-compliance with legal obligations under the so-called "Duty of Vigilance" legislation passed by the French legislature in 2017.
The aim of the reform law, and the action taken this week before the Nanterre High Court in Paris, is to address corporate negligence, according to a statement issued by Survie's investigation co-ordinator Thomas Bart and Friend of the Earth senior campaigner Juilette Renaud.
Thousands of people signed the “See you in Court, Total!” petition supporting the case, with a hearing due to take place on 8 January 2020, according to the statement.
“For too long, large corporations like Total have acted with impunity, trampling over human rights and destroying the environment, but this new Duty of Vigilance law means we can hold Total accountable for human rights violations, environmental and livelihood destruction by the global movement to end corporate impunity,” said FoE chair Karin Nansen.
“It’s not only the people whose homes and land have been stolen but also the biodiversity that is under attack and laying a giant pipeline through these ecosystems will endanger them in the immediate future, so it’s urgent that we put a stop to this,” insisted Renard.
Joining the case are Ugandan advocacy group Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED), Navigators of Development Association (NAVODA), a local NGO based in the oil zone of Bunyoro, and the influential Kampala-based African Institute of Energy Governance (AFIEGO) – headed by former public prosecutor Dickens Kamugisha.
Total, China's CNOOC International and Anglo-Irish explorer Tullow Oil recently suspended activity on field development across the Albertine Graben and the 1445-kilometre East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) proposed to take oil from the Tilenga and Kingfisher fields for export at the Tanzanian port of Tanga.
NGOs claim proper hearings were not conducted and no mitigation plans were either absent or inadequate, falling short of Ugandan regulatory requirements.
The Paris court has been asked to decide whether "Total should be constrained, on potential pain of penalty, to review its vigilance plan, acknowledged the true impact of its oil activities on local communities and the environment (or) ordered to undertake measures to prevent further human rights violations or environmental damage".
Total was formally requested in June to react to these charges and given three months to respond, but rejected all allegations of malfeasance, opening the way for NGOs to proceed to court.
Reacting to the suit, Total pointed to an earlier insistence that its Vigilance Plan clearly identified the risks and set out preventive measures, adding that French law on corporate duty of care does not require disclosure of risks specific to individual projects.
“Total E&P and partners have implemented measures to prevent the risks identified for both EACOP and the Tilenga project and conducted detailed environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs) covering access to land and water and potential impacts – and these assessments led to measures to prevent or mitigate such impacts.”
The French supermajor insists all its actions were conducted in line with national and international standards, in the course of which some 70,000 people were consulted in Tanzania and Uganda.
Total says land-owners were offered financial compensation or compensation in kind alongside measures implemented to support local communities with more planned; ongoing and transparent dialogue ensures that any concerns expressed are handled appropriately.