New York City sues Exxon, Shell, BP over ads saying products are 'cleaner'

The lawsuit follows failed legal efforts by New York City and the state to hold energy companies accountable for global warming.
The lawsuit follows failed legal efforts by New York City and the state to hold energy companies accountable for global warming.PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - New York City sued three major oil companies for allegedly running deceptive ads claiming their products are "cleaner" and "emissions-reducing" while failing to disclose their harmful effects on the climate.

The city sued Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and an industry trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, in state court in Manhattan on Thursday (April 22) - Earth Day - for "systematically and intentionally deceiving" New Yorkers about the leading role fossil fuels play in driving climate change.

The companies are deceiving New Yorkers "with the goal of attracting new consumers to their fossil fuel products and preventing the mass defection of existing consumers to cleaner alternatives that contribute substantially less to climate change," the city said in its complaint. It is seeking an order blocking the companies from violating its consumer protection laws plus civil penalties.

The lawsuit follows failed legal efforts by New York City and the state to hold energy companies accountable for global warming. The city's previous suit was based on tort law, including nuisance and trespass claims against the industry.

The new case focuses on claims of false advertising and deceptive trade practices. Attorneys-general in Connecticut, Minnesota and elsewhere have raised similar claims. Their litigation is still at an early stage.

The suit has no merit, said Paul Afonso, API's chief legal officer.

"In response to a significant loss in the 2nd Circuit, New York City is now attempting to litigate other meritless issues with this lawsuit," Afonso said in a statement. "The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to US consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint. Any suggestion to the contrary is false."

Exxon spokesman Casey Norton also referred to the city's loss and said such lawsuits "do nothing to advance meaningful efforts" to address climate change.

"We support global efforts from policymakers, companies, and individuals to develop real solutions," Norton said in a statement.

BP declined to comment on the suit. Shell didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

The city claims the companies are taking a page from the marketing playbook of the tobacco industry, which sought to hang on to customers by selling "low tar" and "light" cigarettes as healthier alternatives to existing products. It is hoping to repeat the success of some cities and states that targeted light-cigarette campaigns.

"There was a lot of success in court arguing that the advertising, the conscious effort to mislead, these companies specifically have egregiously broken our laws when it comes to addressing consumers," Mayor Bill de Blasio during a briefing on Thursday.

"When it comes to a product that you're selling, you have to tell the truth," Jim Johnson, head of the city's Law Department, said at the briefing. "You can't try to persuade consumers that you're something you're not."

The federal appeals court in Manhattan this month ruled that the city can't sue oil companies for the costs of responding to climate change, saying global warming "is a uniquely international concern" that requires a fix from Congress, not the courts.

And in 2019 New York State lost at trial in a securities fraud suit claiming Exxon lied to shareholders by failing to disclose internal plans for dealing with climate change.

Thursday's case is City of New York v. Exxon Mobil Corp., N.Y. County Supreme Court (Manhattan).