ExxonMobil is facing yet another lawsuit challenging the corporation’s allegedly deceptive behavior related to climate change. The latest suit, filed May 15 in the D.C. Superior Court, claims the oil major is misleading consumers with “false and deceptive” advertising about its investments in “clean” fuels and technology.
The Washington, D.C.-based environmental nonprofit Beyond Pesticides alleges that Exxon’s deceptive marketing and advertising violates the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act. According to the organization, Exxon portrays itself as an environmentally friendly company in ads without revealing the true extent of its business that remains overwhelmingly invested in exploiting fossil fuels to the detriment of the environment and the climate.
“ExxonMobil’s advertising and marketing mislead the public by presenting ExxonMobil’s clean energy activities as a significant proportion of its overall business,” the complaint states. “In contrast to ExxonMobil’s representations, its investments and activities in clean energy constitute only a very small percentage of its total business, the majority of which continues to be based in traditional fossil fuels and in petrochemicals, including those used in environmentally harmful pesticides.”
“The claims are baseless and without merit,” Exxon spokesperson Casey Norton told DeSmog. “We will defend the company in court.”
Beyond Pesticides sued Exxon for “false and deceptive marketing,” misrepresenting to consumers that it “has invested significantly in the production and use of “clean” energy and environmentally beneficial technology.” #greenwashing #pesticideshttps://t.co/7ubFmRFtJj pic.twitter.com/XpkaEj6Q0B
— Beyond Pesticides (@bpncamp) May 18, 2020
The lawsuit points to Exxon’s own numbers depicting the company’s investments in cleaner alternatives and compares them with the company’s total capital expenditures.
For example, over the last 20 years Exxon says it invested over $9 billion in what it calls “lower-emission solutions,” while its total capital expenditures during that time were over $465 billion. That equates to less than 2 percent spending on these technologies in the past two decades. Another figure Exxon touts is investing up to $100 million in lower-emissions technologies over 10 years, or an average of $10 million a year. This comes out to annual investments of only 0.03 percent of the company’s total annual spending, which in 2019 was $31.1 billion.
“Nowhere in its advertisements touting clean energy production does ExxonMobil state what percentage of the company’s investment is in oil and gas compared to how much is invested in clean energy,” the complaint argues.
Earth Rights International tweet about what it calls misleading advertising campaigns from Big Oil. Credit: @EarthRightsIntl
The “clean” solutions that Exxon portrays in marketing and advertising include carbon capture and storage, next-generation biofuels such as algae, and natural gas. But as the lawsuit explains, these technologies and fuels have their own limitations and problems. This is particularly true for gas, a fossil fuel comprised almost entirely of the potent greenhouse gas methane, which consistently leaks into the atmosphere during production and delivery.
Exxon and Shell, as part owners of a Dutch petroleum company, have already faced censure in the Netherlands for advertising natural gas as climate friendly. The Dutch Advertising Code Authority previously ordered Shell to withdraw a misleading ad claiming the company’s greenhouse gas emissions were being recycled and used to grow flowers in greenhouses. Major oil companies have been reprimanded for misleading greenwashing advertising elsewhere in Europe as well.
In December last year, the UK-based environmental law organization ClientEarth filed a legal complaint against BP over the company’s recent ad campaigns, claiming the ads misled consumers over BP’s investments in and commitment to clean energy. That was the first known complaint filed with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for deceptive advertising by a fossil fuel company. Earlier this year, as part of the company’s net zero announcement, BP withdrew one of the ad campaigns, which was targeted in the complaint and which represented the oil major’s first global marketing blitz since before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
Exxon Facing Multiple Lawsuits Over ‘Deceptive’ Behavior
States, municipalities, and shareholders have all sued Exxon in recent years alleging deceptive behavior in communicating climate risks. Exxon is a defendant along with other fossil fuel companies in climate liability suits filed by over a dozen local governments seeking monetary damages to help pay for climate adaptation costs. But Exxon alone has also faced lawsuits from its own shareholders and from the states of New York and Massachusetts, claiming the oil giant misled investors over its accounting of climate risks to its business.
A judge dismissed New York’s lawsuit last fall following a high-profile trial. Massachusetts’ case, filed last October, is proceeding. That case also includes claims of deceptive marketing and advertising, alleging Exxon misled consumers in violation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act. According to the Massachusetts complaint, Exxon’s deceptive behavior has gone on for decades and continues to this day.
Exxon’s ads claim that their oil and gas reduce carbon emissions. But they’re fossil fuels, and they’re a leading cause of climate change.
It’s deceptive to advertise gasoline as a climate solution. We’re suing. pic.twitter.com/9x9rh7l52K
— Maura Healey (@MassAGO) October 24, 2019
An illuminating 2017 study by Harvard researchers Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran examined Exxon’s internal and external communications on climate change between 1977 and 2014. The pair of researchers found that the more public the company’s communications were, the more they expressed doubt about the climate crisis. The study concluded that Exxon had misled the public.
Lawsuits like the Massachusetts attorney general’s case against Exxon and the new Beyond Pesticides suit argue that Exxon’s alleged deception is ongoing and is unlawful under consumer protection laws.
“We cannot afford to be misled by corporations that are tinkering with solutions to the environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity devastation, which threaten our future over an ever-shortening time horizon,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “Deceiving the public into believing that one of the largest petroleum companies in the world is committed to solving the climate crisis, while it continues to devastate the planet, is dangerous and inexcusable, especially given what’s at stake.”
Main image credit: YouTube screenshot from ExxonMobil “Growing Fuel” advertisement, premiered October 2019.