Environmental lawyers have made a formal complaint against oil giant BP, claiming its latest advertising campaign is misleading consumers about its commitment to tackling climate change.
The challenge, filed this week by legal campaign group ClientEarth, is the first time a complaint has been made about a fossil fuel company’s alleged greenwashing under international corporate rules.
ClientEarth has also launched a petition calling for a ban on all fossil fuel advertising unless it comes with a tobacco-style health warning.
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The complaint focuses on BP’s ‘Keep Advancing’ and ‘Possibilities Everywhere’ campaigns — its biggest marketing blitz since before the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Adverts are currently being shown across billboards, newspapers and television in the UK, US and Europe as well as online.
ClientEarth climate lawyer Sophie Marjanac described the campaigns as a “smokescreen”, echoing criticism earlier this year that labelled BP’s approach as “deceptive and hypocritical”.
The challenge was made under the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, an international set of rules governing corporate conduct that includes environmental communications and advertising.
The guidelines state that the public requires accurate, clear, and comprehensive information to make informed decisions about the sustainability of their consumption habits and their climate impact.
In a dossier more than 100 pages long, ClientEarth examines BP’s advertising and the impression it creates for ordinary consumers.
The group argues that the campaigns gave a “potentially misleading impression” of its overall business portfolio by focusing on its renewable energy investments. “While BP’s advertising focuses on clean energy, in reality, more than 96 percent of the company’s annual capital expenditure is on oil and gas,” said Marjanac.
According to its latest annual report, BP spent $500 million in 2018 on “low-carbon activities” but its projected total capital investment comes to $15-17 billion.
ClientEarth is also questioning the accuracy of BP’s statements around gas – which the company describes as “cleaner burning” – as well as its claim that gas currently plays only a backup role on power grids in support of rather than displacing renewable energy.
Also in question are BP’s assertions that increasing global energy demand, including greater use of gas in the coming decades, is essential to human progress.
Sam Hunter Jones, climate accountability lawyer with ClientEarth, said BP was targeted because its advertising campaign was global and very prominent.
In the US, the Massachusetts Attorney General is currently bringing a case against ExxonMobil to examine lobbying on climate denial in the past and its alleged failure to properly inform the public about climate change. “The distinction here is we’re focusing on current advertising from BP and are asking for forward-looking changes to the way they communicate,” says Hunter Jones. It’s also a different level of governance.”
ClientEarth wants BP to stop advertising until it complies with the OECD guidelines, to issue a public correction, and ensure all future advertising complies with the rules.
In a statement, BP said it had not yet seen the complaint but “strongly” rejected the suggestion that its advertising is misleading.
“BP is of course well-known as a major oil and gas producer,” it said. “We are also committed to advancing a low-carbon future. So one of the purposes of this advertising campaign is to let people know about some of the possibilities we see to do that, for example in wind, solar and electric vehicle charging, as well as in natural gas and advanced fuels.”
If the novel complaint is accepted, the next stage is mediation between the parties. If this fails, the OECD will investigate to see if the complaint is justified.
ClientEarth has also launched a campaign calling for all fossil fuel advertising to be banned unless it comes with tobacco-style health warning about the dangers to people and planet. It notes that other major fossil fuel firms, including ExxonMobil and Shell, are also running high-profile marketing campaigns.
“In the past, tobacco companies were able to mislead the public about the safety of their products,” said Marjanac. “We see real parallels with fossil fuel companies and the tobacco industry, which knew about the risks their products posed but used misleading marketing campaigns to sell them regardless.”
Disclaimer: Sophie Marjanac sits on DeSmog UK’s board of directors.