Environmental law charity ClientEarth is joining legal action being taken against greenwash in adverts by a District of Colombia utility, Washington Gas.
The lawsuit argues that gas is being communicated as ‘clean’ ignoring the impact of methane.
The action signifies further growth of the liability risk around greenwash.
With increased focus on gas use in response to the energy crisis, clear communication is critical.
ClientEarth alongside environmental and consumer groups US PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research & Policy Center has filed a lawsuit arguing that Washington Gas Light Company, has violated Washington, D.C.’s consumer protection laws for labelling its gas power as clean and sustainable.
D.C.’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act makes it a violation “to engage in an unfair or deceptive trade practice, whether or not any consumer is in fact misled, deceived or damaged.”
“Washington Gas is greenwashing methane gas in its materials,” said Matt Casale, director of U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Environment Campaigns. “The truth is that methane is a super potent greenhouse gas that pollutes our air and worsens the climate crisis. D.C. residents, like most Americans, are increasingly concerned about climate change. They have a right to the facts about the environmental and health impacts of the products and services they use – including where they get their energy.”
What problem is being addressed in this case?
The lawsuit alleges Washington Gas – which delivers fossil gas to more than one million residential, commercial and industrial customers – is using misleading language and images that promote gas’ environmental benefits to customers.
According to ClientEarth, Washington Gas consistently refers to fossil gas in customer-facing materials as clean and sustainable, and even includes on its bills a colourful picture of flowers, with text describing gas as a “smart choice for the environment” compared to electrification.
US-based ClientEarth lawyer Tyler Highful said: “Companies are legally obliged to be honest with the public, including about how their businesses may impact the environment and safety of consumers.
Why is Washington Gas’ advertising misleading?
The utility claims that the fossil gas it provides is “clean, efficient and reliable energy” on its monthly bills to customers. They also allege that converting an all-electric home to gas “is the equivalent of planting 2.75 acres of trees or driving 26,520 fewer miles each year.”
Their website also lauds the company’s “sustainability”, and makes additional reference to its commitment to the environment stressing that Washington Gas strives “to be responsible stewards of the environment.”
Washington Gas is not alone in greenwashing the environmental impacts of methane gas. In a survey of utility marketing practices, US PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research & Policy Center found examples of similar practices by utilities in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Why is fossil gas bad for the environment?
Methane gas is a fossil fuel that is actively warming the planet. Throughout its supply chain, there are leaks of methane, which is a super-potent greenhouse gas with 80 times the climate-warming harm of carbon dioxide over its first 20 years in the atmosphere.
Stanford University-led research shows global emissions of methane from human activities have rapidly increased in recent decades, with fossil fuel sources and agriculture powering the climb, whether that’s from methane leaking from oil and gas operations, or being routinely burned or flares in oilfields.
Once pumped from the ground, gas then needs to be transported and refined before ultimately being burned – all things that add even more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Global gas production has increased by over 50% since 2000, with the expansion of fracking in the US as a key driver of its growth.
Methane is reported to be responsible for nearly half of global warming to date, and in D.C., despite the Washington Gas’ claims, methane gas represents 23% of the District’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The fuel is often promoted by the industry and lobbyists as an attractive energy alternative to high-carbon-emitting coal for societal decarbonisation, but in reality fossil gas can be just as, if not more warming to the planet as coal power.