COP26 hires law firm that defended fossil fuel giants over environmental disasters

DLA Piper, whose clients have included Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP, will provide legal services to the UN climate change summit.

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Credit: Number 10 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The U.K. government has appointed a law firm with a history of defending fossil fuel companies over environmental disasters to provide legal services for the upcoming COP26 climate summit.

DLA Piper, whose clients have included oil giants Shell, ExxonMobil and BP, was announced on Wednesday as the summit’s “Provider of Legal Services,” meaning the company will “provide general commercial support to COP26 including in respect of sponsorship agreements”. The firm says it is doing the work pro bono.

While DLA Piper highlights its environmental credentials in the announcement, the international law firm — whose global revenue last year was over £1.5 billion ($2.16 billion) — counts major polluters among its clients, and has defended two companies sued over allegedly polluting local communities. 

In 2013, DLA Piper defended ExxonMobil over an alleged 2006 gas leak in Baltimore, Maryland, and in 1989 it defended Occidental Chemicals Corporation over the historic burying of toxic waste in Love Canal, Niagara Falls — considered one of the biggest corporate environmental disasters in history.

Blair Melvile, a solicitor at Teneu Legal working with the civil society group COP26 Coalition, said: “It is disappointing that COP26 has selected a firm with a portfolio of clients who extract and process fossil fuels. 

“Law firms have a responsibility to act to prevent climate catastrophe. This means more than looking at their own activities. They need to consider if they should be assisting companies who seek to profit from fossil fuels and the destruction of our climate.”

He added that “it is unfortunate that a firm with a reputation for helping polluters will be given access to the heart of negotiations to advise COP26”.

History of Polluting Clients

DLA Piper does represent clients in renewable energy, including renewable power generation, energy storage facilities, solar, on-shore and offshore wind and biomass. It also advises clients on climate change, including on climate legislation, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, and “advocacy on behalf of clients’ interests” before international climate conferences. 

But the law firm’s history of defending polluting industries goes back decades. 

As DLA Piper states on its website, the company “represented the principal defendant in the massive Love Canal litigation in the U.S., the largest and one of the longest Superfund cases on record.”

Thomas H. Truitt, an attorney for DLA Piper forerunner Piper and Marbury, represented Occidental Chemicals in 1989 as part of a landmark case over the historic burying of 22,000 tonnes of toxic waste in the town of Love Canal, Niagara Falls. Residents suffered illness, miscarriages, birth defects, and death, according to the Guardian. The case was settled out of court in 1994. 

In 2013, DLA Piper represented ExxonMobil in a successful appeal against £1.2 billion ($1.65 billion) in damages over a 2006 gas leak in Jacksonville, in Baltimore County, Maryland, that allegedly released 26,000 gallons of gasoline into grounds used for drinking water. 

The families settled in 2014 after the damages were thrown out in the appeal. DLA Piper’s website says: “We helped secure the reversal of a US$1.65 billion jury verdict against ExxonMobil in the Maryland Court of Appeals.”

‘Proud to Support COP26’

In another example of the company helping polluters, Ben Brown, a lawyer for the firm’s U.K. office, worked with Royal Dutch Shell on the 2011 sale of its £725 million ($1 billion) retail network across 18 African countries. And DLA Piper’s U.S. arm represented BP in a £1.7 billion ($2.4 billion) sale of its fossil fuel refining and marketing business in California in 2013.

On the same day as the COP26 announcement, it was reported that DLA Piper and one if its partners, Charles Cook, is being sued at the High Court by medical technology company Enigma Diagnostic Ltd for allegedly breaking Solicitors Regulation Authority rules and paying Enigma investors’ money, meant to fund its research, to Enigma’s founder and director Harvey Boulter. 

In the report a DLA Piper spokesperson said it is “committed as a firm to upholding the highest principles of ethics and professional standards and do not consider this claim to have any foundation. Given ongoing proceedings it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

When asked by DeSmog, DLA Piper did not comment on the Exxon or Occidental Chemicals cases specifically, nor on its work for Shell or BP, and did not address the Enigma lawsuit. 

A spokesperson for the law firm said: “Various energy market participants including fossil fuel companies have committed to emission reductions, some of whom we act for or have acted for, and we as a firm have also committed to making significant emission reductions across all scopes ourselves, and expect validation of our science-based target this month. 

“We believe that COP26, which we are proud to support, is key to providing a forum to focus on the challenges, the opportunities and the solutions, associated with climate transition.”

They added: “We are also one of the world’s largest legal advisers to the renewable energy industry and in the first half of this year have been recognised for working on more renewable energy deals than any other firm, reflecting the changing sentiment and dynamic associated with the energy industry as a whole.”

The government’s COP26 team, when asked, also did not address the examples of DLA Piper defending polluters.

A COP26 spokesperson said: “DLA Piper is providing value-in-kind legal services, there is no cost to COP26 or the taxpayer. 

“All organisations supporting COP26 have met a robust criteria, which includes making net-zero commitments with a credible action plan to achieve this, independently verified through the science-based targets initiative.

“They have also joined the Race to Zero which requires them to set credible action plans for reducing their emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.”


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