A French court has rejected a first bid by human rights activists to suspend TotalEnergies’ multibillion-dollar oil pipeline project in Uganda, as part of an early battle in a wider war being waged by campaigners to force companies to act over environmental damage and climate change.
Judges ruled on Tuesday that the request for a suspension to Total’s project was inadmissible on a technicality. But the decision did not address the underlying merits of the complaint, which the written ruling said would have to be examined by another judge.
The setback in the action brought by Friends of the Earth France, Survie and four Ugandan civil society organisations is an early skirmish ahead of a series of lawsuits that have been filed under the auspices of a novel 2017 French law.
The law requires large companies to be “vigilant” about the risks to human rights, the environment and health throughout their supply chains.
The vigilance law was introduced following the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Bangladesh in 2013, causing the deaths of more than 1,000 people, that supplied clothing to many western brands.
None of the cases filed under the law have yet reached a conclusion, and lawyers said that the overloaded French courts were exacerbating case delays. As a result, its effectiveness in forcing companies to change or halt their activities remains untested.
The long process exposed companies to long periods of uncertainty, said lawyer Sébastien Mabile, part of a legal team that has filed a separate case under the vigilance law against Total and another, filed last week, against the lender BNP Paribas.
But advocates said the law had forced companies to release more detailed information about their plans as part of ongoing cases. “It’s a way to push companies into concrete action,” said Mabile.
In the Total oil pipeline complaint, the oil major is accused of not doing enough to protect the people and natural environment affected by its plans. The planned pipeline will run from Uganda to the Tanzanian coast, and has become a fierce battleground for environmental campaigners.
Total said on Tuesday that it had noted the court’s decision and reiterated that it had a detailed “vigilance” plan in place — one that it had added to after first being targeted by the lawsuit in 2019.
The groups that brought the case said they were “consulting with affected communities to determine the appropriate next steps.”
The French law “is a powerful way to ferret out obligations to mitigate corporate climate impacts,” said Esmeralda Colombo, a climate risk researcher at the RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment.
It was “the first of its kind” but “I believe that it has the potential to become a model law in Europe,” she said.
Lawmakers in other parts of Europe have moved to draw up similar supply chain due diligence laws, including Germany and Switzerland.
Other pending claims have been filed under the vigilance law against companies including the foodmaker Danone, power group EDF and two against BNP Paribas.