Lawyers Challenge BP Over ‘Greenwashing’ Ad Campaign

In a bold legal move, they argue the oil giant is misleading consumers about its low-carbon credentials while it invests heavily in fossil fuels.

BP sign. Credit: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
In the early 2000s, BP billed itself as "beyond petroleum." The company "strongly rejects" the new greenwashing allegation and says one purpose of its latest campaign is "to let people know about some of the possibilities” to advance to a low-carbon future. Credit: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

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Environmental lawyers have made their boldest move to date against “greenwashing” in advertising campaigns by oil and gas companies.

ClientEarth, a non-profit legal group, submitted an official complaint under international guidelines on Tuesday arguing that the oil giant BP is misleading consumers about its low-carbon credentials in recent advertisements—the company’s first global campaign in 10 years.

The ads, which emphasize BP’s role in the transition to cleaner energy, create a “potentially misleading impression” that distracts the public from their core business of hydrocarbons, ClientEarth said.

“BP is spending millions on an advertising campaign to give the impression that it’s racing to renewables, that its gas is cleaner and that it is part of the climate solution,” said Sophie Marjanac, a lawyer at ClientEarth. “This is a smokescreen.”


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The complaint, submitted to the British authority that handles alleged breaches of rules on corporate conduct set by the OECD, the organization of leading world economies, focuses on the oil major’s “Keep Advancing” and “Possibilities Everywhere” advertising campaigns shown digitally and across billboards, newspapers and television in the UK, the United States and Europe.

If successful, the OECD could call upon BP to take down its ads or to issue a corrective statement.

Duncan Blake, director of brand at BP, told the Financial Times this year that the company sought to focus not just on the “new, interesting shiny stuff but the core business that keeps the world moving day to day.”

BP’s Message: More Energy, Lower Emissions

Critics have said the majority of the ads give the impression that BP is seeking to burnish its green credentials without any meaningful change to how it conducts its operations.

The energy major has invested in solar power, wind farms and biofuels and used its venture capital arm to plough cash into low-carbon technologies. But its traditional businesses still generate the biggest returns and attract the most spending.

“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,” Marjanac said.

BP in recent years has focused its messaging on the “dual challenge” of providing the world with more energy while reducing emissions.

The company said that it “strongly rejects” the suggestion that its advertising is misleading and that “one of the purposes of this advertising campaign is to let people know about some of the possibilities” to advance a low-carbon future.

Other Oil Majors’ Claims Also Challenged

It will be up to Bernard Looney, who is set to take over from Bob Dudley as chief executive of BP in early 2020, to spell out what this means for corporate strategy.

Other oil majors have also been challenged over misleading advertising. In September, the UK Advertising Standards Authority told Equinor, the Norwegian energy company, not to imply that gas is a “low-carbon energy” source.

To address “greenwashing” more broadly, ClientEarth said it was launching a campaign calling on the next UK government to require tobacco-style labels warning that fossil fuels contribute to climate change on all advertising by oil companies.

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