In his almost 30-year career as an advocate for environmental justice, Louisiana attorney Stuart Smith has fought many of the biggest energy companies in the world and has come away victorious in his fair share of cases.
Smith tells the stories behind these cases in Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America, a new book that is part memoir and part legal thriller. With energy companies acquiring even greater leeway to do as they please, Smith believed now was the right time to show the public how he successfully used the courts to gain some justice against corporate wrongdoers.
The book’s legal dramas take place primarily in the oil patch of the Gulf Coast states, where companies such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron spent millions of dollars defending themselves in cases brought by Smith and his fellow plaintiffs’ attorneys. One energy industry behemoth feared a loss in a single case brought by Smith in a small town in Mississippi would establish legal precedent and wind up costing the industry considerably more money down the road.
“Part of me understood exactly why they fought. We were looking to establish a brand-new area of environmental law, one that could gain a small measure of justice for workers and other citizens who’d been poisoned all across the oil patch of the Deep South and could cost Big Oil hundreds of millions of dollars,” Smith writes.
As a storyteller, Smith fills the book with intrigue and suspense, often leaving the reader to wonder how he and his outgunned colleagues will be able to claim a legal victory on behalf of their underdog clients.
Early in his career, Smith said he learned that big oil and gas companies operated in a system that valued profits over people and that they were perfectly content to try to cover their tracks if necessary. “It is our job as trial lawyers to try to make the costs of doing good less than the costs of doing bad,” he explains in the book.
It was hard enough battling the corporate giants and their high-priced legal teams. But with the government also on the side of the energy companies, achieving justice became a daunting task. Smith recalls never having an environmental case where the government was on the side of the victim. Whether it’s toxic waste produced by the oil and gas industry or oil spilled from the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the federal government, together with state governments, has traditionally served as an industry partner in quashing attempts to gain justice for alleged environmental crimes, according to Smith.
With the Gulf of Mexico disaster, the real agenda of the Obama administration was to shield oil giant BP, operator of the oil field where the massive leak occurred, from legal liability and protect the president from political blame, Smith contends in his book. In the aftermath of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, the federal government worked with BP to restrict access as a way to downplay the severity of the disaster.