There may be trouble ahead for companies who claim to be helping the planet while continuing to produce fossil fuels. A coalition of green groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission on Monday alleging that Chevron is misleading the public in its claims that it is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The complaint, filed jointly by Earthworks, Global Witness, and Greenpeace USA, says that Chevron has been positioning itself to the general public in social media, TV, and other types of marketing as working to solve the climate crisis and providing environmentally-friendly solutions. But the company’s actual business practices, the groups say, tells another story.
Research has shown that Chevron is the largest investor-owned source of global carbon emissions since 1965. It’s also the biggest oil company in the U.S. While the company’s marketing language may paint it as turning over a green new leaf, the suit says, Chevron isn’t actually making that much of an effort. A complaint filed in the DC District Court last June alleges that only 0.2% of the company’s spending between 2010 and 2018 was on low-carbon energy sources.
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And even as Chevron’s social media and website is littered with the phrase “ever-cleaner energy” to describe its products, the company has no plans to make any commitments to seriously lower its production of dirty fuels. As CEO Mike DeWirth said last year, Chevron will instead be focusing on “higher returns and lower carbon” in their production line while continuing to crank out oil and gas. DeWirth also told Reuters in January that he thinks population growth means fossil fuels are here to stay.
“There’s a deceptive use of jargon and industry terms to confuse the public” in much of Chevron’s marketing, said Josh Eisenfeld, a corporate accountability campaigner at Earthworks. Eisenfeld pointed to Chevron’s claims that it’s lowering “carbon emissions intensity” — aka reducing the amount of emissions it takes to make fossil fuels — as a prime example.
“That’s misleading,” he said. “Reducing your emissions intensity does not mean you’re going to be reducing your overall emissions, especially for a company like Chevron that has plans to expand their production. If they lower their emissions intensity per barrel of product they create, but they increase the amount of product they’re creating, there’s still room for them to actually emit more carbon dioxide than they have in the past.”
Chevron, for their part, told Bloomberg that the FTC complaint is “frivolous,” and said the company “engage[s] in honest conversations about the energy transition.”
The FTC is a government agency that is tasked with protecting consumers from false advertising and regulating business activities and practices. In the early 1990s, the agency released its first roadmap for marketers looking to advertise environmentally friendly or “green” products, and have updated those guidelines sporadically in the decades since (the latest version of these guides was published in 2012). In the past, the Green Guides, as they are known, have been used to crack down on companies making claims about biodegradable plastic, providers of environmental certification seals, and organic products. In a high-profile case, the agency also took Volkswagen to task for claiming its diesel cars were clean. But the green groups filing the complaint say that this is the first time a Green Guides-based complaint has been lodged against a fossil fuel company.
On a webpage compiled by Earthworks, the organisation lists examples of how some of Chevron’s recent marketing efforts specifically mislead consumers. The webpage points out a particular hypocrisy in Chevron’s focus on methane captured from factory farming, which the company calls “renewable natural gas.” Chevron’s statement in support of Black Lives Matter this summer are also compared to the company’s long history of operating factories — in many cases, polluting — in Black and Latinx neighbourhoods.
There’s some signs that the federal government could start paying closer attention to greenwashing in the energy sector more generally. In December, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra wrote in a memo that “deter[ring] greenwashing and deceptive environmental claims” in the energy sector could be an opportunity for the agency to take additional action to protect consumers as more and more companies begin making claims about energy efficiency or reducing emissions. There is also a growing public interest in holding oil companies to account for their claims, as social media users and even creative ad agencies are turning up the pressure on the industry. The timing comes as the world needs to draw down emissions by more than 7% per year this decade in order to meet what’s considered a relatively safe level of global warming, something continued oil extraction is not compatible with.
And there should be plenty of opportunity to scrutinize claims made by oil and gas companies. Eisenfeld said he has noticed other oil companies making similar claims to Chevron’s about “lowering carbon intensity” to paint themselves as fighting on climate change. Companies like Chevron, Eisenfeld said, “are trying to capitalise on the growing body of consumers who care about [the environment]. There’s a market for this, and energy companies are on to this marketing.”