D.C. Is Taking Big Oil to Court for Deceiving Consumers About Climate Change

The District joins Minnesota in suing Big Oil under laws that prohibit consumer fraud and deception.

by | Jun 25, 2020

Washington, D.C. has filed suit against BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell, four of the world’s biggest fossil fuel corporations, for allegedly “systematically and intentionally misleading District consumers about the role their products play in causing climate change.”

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine announced the lawsuit on Thursday, one day after Minnesota sued the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and Koch Industries under similar state consumer protections laws.

Common law nuisance claims are at the heart of a dozen other climate cases brought by several municipalities and currently making their way through state and federal courts. Those lawsuits seek to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the local impacts of climate change, and for the costs to local and state governments to deal with those impacts.

Washington, D.C. and Minnesota are instead suing the fossil fuel industry under local and state laws, respectively, that prohibit consumer fraud and deception. This makes it very unlikely that the fossil fuel industry can get the cases moved from local or state courts to federal court, which it often tries to do.

Filing suit under these consumer protection laws also means that Minnesota and Washington, D.C. do not have to prove they are suffering specific climate harms, such as more extreme wildfires and flooding, or rising sea levels. Instead, these cases hinge on whether or not fossil fuel companies knowingly misled consumers by publicly denying the reality of climate change and its likely impacts, and withholding information pertinent to the issue. Despite a focus on misleading natural gas claims in particular, the suit does not name the American Petroleum Institute (API) as a defendant. However, it does allege that API acts on behalf of the defendants and holds defendants responsible for API’s climate deception and disinformation. As such, the complaint opens API—which is based in D.C.—up to discovery.

Alongside a long list of examples of false advertising about climate change by BP and the other firms, D.C.’s complaint also names various front groups funded by fossil fuel companies, accompanied by details about their various campaigns to spin the science on climate change.

In a call with reporters, Racine highlighted one such group, the “Advancement for Sound Science Coalition.” Initially funded by tobacco giant Philip Morris to create public doubt about the science linking smoking to lung cancer and other illnesses, the group went on to encompass other industries, including fossil fuel companies. In 1998, under executive director and prominent climate denier Steven Milloy, the group worked on both combating claims about secondhand smoke, and, with the American Petroleum Institute, crafting a communications strategy aimed at creating doubt around climate science.

“This is a consumer protection case, so the harm comes to consumers when they’re not given full and accurate information about the purchases they’re making,” said Deputy Attorney General Kate Konopka, director of the A.G. office’s Public Advocacy Division. “There’s no requirement to show harm. Our claim is that consumers have been harmed by failure to be able to make informed purchasing decisions.”

The complaint highlights the fossil fuel defendants’ more recent messaging around the “greenness” of natural gas. “In Defendants’ greenwashing advertisements, they misleadingly portray natural gas as “sustainable” in an effort to paint themselves as working to solve climate change by making energy ‘cleaner,’” the complaint notes. “When in reality they are doing the exact opposite as the main drivers of greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts.”

It also singles out overstatements by the firms of their investments in renewable energy. “Defendants now falsely claim through advertising campaigns directed at D.C. consumers that their businesses are substantially invested in lower carbon technologies and renewable energy sources,” the complaint reads, “In truth, each Defendant has invested minimally in renewable energy while continuing to greatly expand its fossil fuel production.”

“The claims are baseless and without merit,” Exxon spokesperson Casey Norton told Reuters, characterizing the lawsuit as part of a “coordinated, politically motivated” effort to undermine the industry. “We look forward to defending the company in court.”
Racine noted the discrepancy between what the fossil fuel defendants advertise and where they’re actually investing. “These ads obscure the fact that none of these companies invest more than 2.3 percent of its capital expenditures in renewables,” he said. “And that BP, Exxon Mobil and Shell are planning to expand fossil fuel production by 20 to 35 percent through 2030.

“Now that the companies are seeking to sell more natural gas, they market it as safe, clean and emissions reducing,” said Racine. “The fact of the matter is that no fossil fuel product is safe nor clean.”

6/25/20 1:52 PM ET: This story has been updated.

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.