Time to come clean: New York City targets Shell, BP and Exxon in Climate Change lawsuit

May 5, 2021

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

New York City has decided to sue the oil companies Royal Dutch Shell, BP and ExxonMobil for reportedly misrepresenting their fuels as “cleaner.” 

What does this mean?

Focused on allegations of false advertising and misleading trade practices, New York City is seeking answers. Aiming to highlight the level of deception observable from these companies’ supposedly environmentally-conscious trade practices, this lawsuit also seeks greater transparency on their climate change practices. 

Is there any merit in this case? In accordance with New York City’s past legal losses on climate-related issues, the American Petroleum Institute’s chief legal officer Paul Alfonso claims there are various “meritless issues with this lawsuit.” On the other hand, James E. Johnson of the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York considers the defendant companies to have spent millions to persuade consumers that they present a clean, green choice. But they don’t. They say they are making meaningful investments to protect the environment. But they aren’t.”  This suggests that there is indeed a valid case.

What's the big picture effect?

Awareness around Environmental Corporate Social Responsibility is on the rise, not just in New York, but globally. As reported by the IBM Institute for Business Value in June 2020, developments in attitudes have been consistently observed with “over 7 in 10 consumers say[ing] it’s at least moderately important that brands offer “clean” products.” With these large oil companies aware of such patterns, if these allegations of deceptive advertising are true, this indicates action is required to ensure honesty is maintained with consumers. 

Casey Norton, Exxon’s spokesperson has stated that lawsuits on such climate matters “do nothing to advance meaningful efforts” to help prevent climate change but rather it is the combined “global efforts from policymakers, companies, and individuals to develop real solutions.” To some extent this is true, however, it is important not to disregard the scale of influence and power these large oil companies hold. In addition, this lawsuit could offer positive legal progress by providing much-needed certainty that the environmental representations conveyed by such companies are accurate and prevent deceptive practices from occurring in the future. 

This lawsuit also represents a significant step forward for high-profile companies in taking responsibility for their environmental representations to individual consumers. Addressing the consumer relationship with these companies, Lorelai Salas of the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection neatly summarises that: “when oil companies advertise their core products with words like ‘greener’ and ‘cleaner’ while failing to disclose the actual impacts of those products, it impairs consumers’ ability to make informed purchasing decisions.” This reinforces that failing to disclose the appropriate information is essentially leaving consumers in ignorance.

Ultimately, such lawsuits do advance meaningful efforts. Even at this early stage, this lawsuit has already increased awareness among the public. Therefore, such calls for transparency and appropriate accountability concerning accurate and clear company representations on climate initiatives should not be undermined nor disregarded.  Whether the basis of this case is “meritless” remains to be seen.

Report written by Karolina Smolicz 

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