Nonprofit group takes Exxon to court for faking its environmental commitments

“If we can attack the head of the snake, then we have a solution.”

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You might have already heard about the exciting rulings in climate liability world this week: a federal appeals court gave a group of California cities and counties the green light to advance their climate cost recovery suits against Exxon, Chevron, and other Big Oil companies in state court. The same court sent a suit on behalf of two other cities — Oakland and San Francisco — back to federal court for reconsideration. Here’s our blog post explaining the decisions, and here’s a more in-depth look at these cases from an earlier issue of EXXONKNEWS. Long story short, this ruling is a Big Freaking Deal and means the walls are continuing to close in on the industry.

In that vein, this week’s issue is about yet another case to hold Big Oil accountable. Plot twist: the lawsuit was filed by a nonprofit organization that educates the public on pesticide use. We’ll explain…

Ever seen one of those advertisements featuring an Exxon scientist playing with vials of green goo and proclaiming the company’s commitment to researching “advanced biofuels and algae?” Or the ones about Exxon’s innovation on carbon capture and storage, or other “low-carbon solutions”? 

You (probably) weren’t having nightmares from reading this newsletter: you were witnessing part of a multibillion-dollar push by the oil giant to re-brand itself as environmentally concerned, technologically savvy “corporate citizens” who have the keys to solving — that’s right, solving, not causing — the climate crisis. It’s the industry’s new way of deceiving the public, and it is exactly the reason why Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Beyond Pesticides decided to sue ExxonMobil earlier this month. 

The lawsuit charges Exxon with fraudulent and deceptive marketing to consumers. Jay Feldman, the organization’s executive director, says Exxon’s claims to be a good-faith partner on climate change aren’t just misleading — they glorify a business-as-usual that is incompatible with actual solutions and comes at the cost of communities, lives, and the future of our planet. 

“We decided with this litigation to show that this company is misleading the public on its commitment to this crisis, and in a way that is undermining us making this critical transition in a very short period of time,” Feldman said.

The technologies and practices Exxon is touting as “clean” solutions — especially its heavy focus on natural gas — aren’t even close to enough to slow climate change.

Even if they were, Feldman says, the company’s investments in these “solutions” are so small that they only serve the purpose of obscuring its far greater investments in fossil fuels. The company promises to spend an average of $10 million per year on lower-emissions technologies — or just 0.03% of Exxon’s yearly spending. For context, the company has spent about $41 million per year pumping out fake science, false advertising and climate misinformation since 2015.

Beyond Pesticides works to educate the public on the hazards of pesticides and advocate for organic agricultural practices that are safer for both ecosystem and human health. What does this have to do with Exxon? Well, while they were burning up the climate and lying about it, Exxon still managed to sell toxic petrochemicals for agricultural conglomerates to use as pesticides in fertilizers. Executives must’ve really had their hands full, promoting their faux environmentalism and peddling chemicals that would destroy biodiversity and cause life-threatening illnesses in humans. “We were told this was a way to achieve high productivity and profitability in an industry that wasn’t reliant on these chemicals previously,” says Feldman. “Today it’s a profit center for ExxonMobil and other oil companies.”

Feldman says the company’s new deception tactic — not denying climate change outright, but playing the environmentally friendly corporation — is equally as harmful because it encourages consumers and other industries to unknowingly contribute to the devastation of our planet. 

“We’re a consumer society,” he says. “That’s why we see Big Oil investing so much money in their public image and their advertising. Obviously this company is not committed to the kind of change it portrays on the public airways to presumably generate goodwill by the public and therefore maintain product sales.”

Exxon and other companies have faced lawsuits over their false advertising before: just last year, Massachusetts’ attorney general filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against Exxon, and the UK-based environmental law group ClientEarth lodged a complaint against BP for misleading consumers with an ad campaign about the company’s investment in clean energy. More than a dozen cost recovery lawsuits filed by communities across the country have involved the industry’s deception on climate change.

Beyond Pesticides’ suit, filed in D.C. Superior Court, is unique in that it charges Exxon with violation of a Washington, D.C.-specific statute called the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act.

“We have an opportunity here in the nation’s capital to show that this deception has adverse impacts on human health and the environment, and the actual sustainability of the planet,” says Feldman. “We’re up against large corporations, who are essentially merchants of doubt and merchants of deception. So when you have a statute that is really focused on whether there’s a fraudulent act on the part of the company in how it portrays itself, and you can say I’ve been deceived as an individual, as a consumer, I’ve been deceived as a member of an organization like Beyond Pesticides, that’s an incredibly important and powerful tool.”

Sooner or later, the industry will have to face the music. Lawsuits like Beyond Pesticides’ help shatter the illusion Big Oil has worked so hard to create. As Feldman told me, “If we can attack the head of the snake, then we have a solution.”

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