Last week, Chevron made an announcement on Twitter: It was publishing a new climate change report outlining plans to lower the carbon intensity of its products and invest in renewables, carbon offsets, and low-carbon technology. The internet, however, was having none of it — the tweet’s replies were filled with skeptical messages reminding the oil giant of its history as a leading corporate polluter and condemning the plan as hypocritical.
It was a fitting backdrop when, six days later, environmental groups Earthworks, Global Witness, and Greenpeace USA announced that they were filing a complaint against Chevron with the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, America’s consumer protection agency. It’s certainly not the first time a fossil fuel company has been accused of greenwashing, but it is the first time an FTC complaint has been leveraged as the legal avenue to do so, according to the environmental groups.
“Chevron spent decades sowing doubt about the science of climate change,” said Anusha Narayanan, climate campaign manager at Greenpeace USA, in a statement. “Now in the face of widespread public support for climate action, the company is misrepresenting its role in the climate crisis and deceptively casting itself as an ally.”
The complaint takes aim at the millions of dollars Chevron has spent on marketing campaigns to paint itself as climate-friendly, despite dedicating only 0.2 percent of its spending between 2010 and 2018 to low-carbon energy sources. The company has no plans to reduce its overall carbon emissions, the environmental groups said, despite its jargony promises of reducing “emissions intensity.” Reducing emissions intensity means that each unit of a given product will produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. However, if Chevron continues to expand total oil and gas production like it has been, its total emissions can still increase despite lower emissions intensity.
By filing a complaint with the FTC, which aims to protect consumers from deceptive advertising, these environmental groups are trying to hold Chevron accountable to the agency’s “Green Guides.” These regulations are meant to prevent companies from making misleading environmental claims and could serve as a new basis for activist challenges to oil and gas companies. The five-member FTC is currently short one person and split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, but Biden’s upcoming appointment of a fifth could help the environmental groups’ case.
The complaint against Chevron demands that the company remove misleading advertisements and publicly correct the record. It’s unclear whether these requests will be successful, but it’s not unheard of — last year, BP withdrew advertising in the U.K. in the wake of a similar complaint filed by a group called ClientEarth.
If complaints like the one against Chevron do become more common, the FTC could handle them on a case-by-case basis. However, they might also consider updating the “Green Guides” to send a broader message to all kinds of companies that tout climate plans, said Michael Burger, the executive director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, in an email.
“The Green Guides were last updated in 2012. The world is different now,” he said. “Climate-related marketing is not limited to representations about carbon offsets and renewable energy.”
These updates could include guidelines for using phrases like “climate-friendly,” “carbon-neutral,” and “net-zero,” Burger said, as well as warn companies that invest almost entirely in fossil fuels against marketing themselves as clean energy innovators.
“This practice cannot go unchecked, and is in fact what the FTC’s Green Guides were designed to do: prevent companies from misleading consumers with egregious claims about the environmental impacts of their products,” said Julieta Biegner, U.S. communications and campaign officer at Global Witness. “We urge the FTC to take swift action and show big polluters they cannot get away with ‘greenwashing.’”