BP faces 'greenwashing' complaint over advertising campaign pushing environmental credentials

Oil company's ads create 'potentially misleading impression' that BP is moving rapidly towards renewables, claims ClientEarth

Ben Chapman
Wednesday 04 December 2019 17:57 GMT

Environmental lawyers have launched an unprecedented complaint against BP for “greenwashing” its image with an advertising blitz that promotes the oil company’s environmental credentials.

BP’s is creating a “potentially misleading impression” that it is moving towards renewables when in fact the vast majority of its planned investment is in oil and gas, lawyer from campaign group ClientEarth said.

They are also calling on the UK government to ban all fossil fuel advertising unless it comes with a tobacco-style health warning about the dangers of climate change.

BP, which in the 2000s branded itself as “beyond petroleum”, is currently engaged in its biggest marketing blitz since the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster.

Adverts on billboards, newspapers and television in the UK, US and Europe as well as on social media and online, describe gas as “cleaner burning”. They also state that BP is “working to make energy cleaner”. However, more than 96 per cent of BP’s capital expenditure is on oil and gas.

Client Earth says this is in breach of guidelines for multinational firms issued by the OECD. BP said it "strongly rejected" the suggestion its advertising is misleading.

In a 100-page file, submitted under the OECD’s complaints procedure, lawyers question BP’s assertion that greater use of gas in the coming decades is essential to human development, without recognising the scope for increased energy efficiency in developed economies and the climate risk associated with fossil fuels.

ClientEarth lawyers argue that BP should not mislead the public about the nature of its business and the environmental impact of its products.

“Make no mistake, this is a climate emergency,” said ClientEarth climate lawyer Sophie Marjanac. “Meanwhile BP is doubling down on business as usual, running its biggest ad campaign since the Deepwater Horizon disaster to put up a shiny green facade for the public.”

BP is not alone among oil majors in ramping up advertising spending to present a green image, but the scale of its campaign is larger than those of rivals such as Shell.

The complaint is the first to be made to the OECD guidelines about a fossil fuel company’s alleged greenwashing. The guidelines state that companies should “not make representations or omissions, nor engage in any other practices, that are deceptive, misleading, fraudulent or unfair”.

If BP is found to have breached the guidelines, it could ultimately be called on to withdraw the adverts. However, the OECD does not have legal authority to enforce its ruling.

ClientEarth is therefore calling on the government to implement tobacco-style warnings on fossil fuel adverts warning people about the dangers.

“In the past, tobacco companies were able to mislead the public about the safety of their products,” Marjanac added.

“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.”

A spokesperson for BP said: “One of the purposes of this advertising campaign is to let people know about some of the possibilities” for a low-carbon future.

Pressure is mounting on fossil fuel producers to make more immediate moves to tackle climate change. This week, Repsol became the first large oil company to pledge to become carbon neutral. The Spanish firm has said it aims to hit net zero by 2050.

Billionaire hedge fund manager Sir Christopher Hohn recently warned companies that he will begin voting down their directors if they do not do enough to reduce emissions.

The founder of TCI Fund Management, which manages more than $28bn (£21bn) of assets, has sent letters to big companies in which it invests, including Google and Airbus.

TCI said it would “typically vote against all directors of companies which do not publicly disclose all of their emissions and do not have a credible plan for their reduction”. The fund manager warned it will consider selling its shares if climate change risks aren’t properly disclosed.

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