Recent years have seen states, municipalities, and climate advocacy groups filing lawsuits and complaints against oil and gas companies over “greenwashing,” a label for exaggerated, misleading, or unsupported claims about a company’s environmental impact or overall practices. By 2020, such climate litigation cases numbered 1,550 across 38 countries. In addition to oil and gas companies, greenwashing suits have targeted airlines, banks, car companies, restaurants, and retailers.
The suits typically center on state and federal claims of fraud, unfair and deceptive trade practices, public and private nuisance, and false advertising. One case saw climate activists suing an oil and gas company for misleading advertising over a rebranding campaign that suggested the company could achieve zero net-carbon emissions by 2050 even though it continued its investments in fossil fuels.
Several oil and gas companies have used a strategic maneuver in attempts to defend against greenwashing claims: moving the lawsuits from state to federal court. In one example, the tactic played out over nearly four years:
- The City of Baltimore filed a lawsuit under Maryland consumer protection laws against 26 oil and gas companies in state court in July of 2018.
- The companies removed the case to the Maryland federal district court.
- The federal court remanded the case to state court.
- The companies appealed.
- The Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision.
- The companies appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.
- The Supreme Court vacated the Fourth Circuit’s decision and required the panel to review all bases for removal.
- Finally, in April of 2022, the Fourth Circuit remanded the case to state court.
Oil and gas companies are pursuing the same procedural tactic against claims filed by the Attorneys General of Hawaii, Connecticut, and Vermont and by the City of Charleston, South Carolina.
However, several federal courts have ruled in favor of state consumer protection law claims proceeding in state court. This precedent could make advocacy groups, states, and municipalities more likely to file greenwashing claims against oil and gas companies, leading to increased greenwashing litigation and challenges to marketing campaigns and other public communications.