Sarah Hunt

As originally published in The Hill on September 9th, 2023

Much has been written about how our 24/7 cycle of news and social media can be damaging.

In those spaces, incentives are increasingly in favor of those who yell louder rather than those who work together to get things done.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing that dynamic play out in the environmental space, where a particular subset of activists is working to denigrate and undermine climate progress in the private sector rather than supporting actual climate action. 

While this may be useful for raising profiles in Washington D.C. or attracting more money from donors, it unfortunately is a terrible idea for the goal we should all share: effectively addressing climate change. 

A successful climate strategy has to be balanced and comprehensive. It has to bring every stakeholder to the table. And energy firms are critical stakeholders to have at that table — in fact, they are indispensable.

Already, these firms have invested in nearly 80 carbon capture and storage projects that will soon allow energy operations to tap and utilize carbon dioxide rather than release it. This serious focus on carbon capture has already vaulted the U.S. ahead of Europe, with American operations capturing 23.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, nearly nine times our European counterparts. 

More solutions are in development too, with Occidental Petroleum’s Oxy Low Carbon Ventures announcing this year a $200 million commitment  to low-carbon projects. ConocoPhillips has designated a 25,000-acre position in southeast Louisiana for a potential carbon capture and storage hub, while Chevron Technology Ventures is investing in a $300 million fund focused on “industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization and the growing circular carbon economy.” 

You’d think every environmental activist would applaud news that these considerable investments are creating meaningful results. And many do. But, sadly, some are responding with public condemnation and lawsuits instead.

In February, activists accused Shell of greenwashing in a complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission, claiming the energy producer had exaggerated “its financial commitment to renewable sources of energy.” Shell joins a laundry list of companies including Coca-Cola and Nestle branded by some activists with the scarlet “G.” This campaign doesn’t look set to abate anytime soon, either.

By muddying public dialogue on climate, the greenwashing label has found its way into state and municipal climate lawsuits. Greenwashing is not a tort, but plaintiffs are trying to use it when suing energy firms. Climate suits could soon snowball following a Supreme Court decision  in April to allow plaintiffs to litigate in more tort-friendly state courts. 

Environmental groups can’t have it both ways. Critics of energy firms first disparaged them for taking insufficient action on climate change and now dismiss their robust discussion of climate-conscious plans as greenwashing. In other words, when energy firms make the climate-driven investments activists want, they get sued for it.

These lawsuits and the associated “greenwashing” claims may be designed to raise the profile of certain activists and groups in D.C., but they are not cost-free. They actually present a very serious danger to legitimate efforts to advance climate action. And it’s not hard to see why. They disincentivize energy producers from developing the low-carbon innovative technologies we’ll need to win on climate. They also create clouds of liability for companies that publicly showcase the good work they’re doing in this area.

All of this can only take us backward, not forward.  

The truth is that environmental groups and energy firms today are natural allies in the fight against climate change. That’s why it’s so important for both to continue working together for constructive progress and realistic solutions. No matter what the incentives may be for a few bad eggs, now is simply not the moment to waste valuable time advancing the fiction that energy producers aren’t actively fighting climate change when the record shows they are. After all, as President Biden reminded us in his State of the Union address, “We’re going to need oil and gas for a while.”

The question is how we can work together to make the bridge to our low-carbon future as quick and as smart as possible. That’s where everyone’s focus should be. And getting there will require serious cooperation between environmental groups and energy firms. 

Sarah E. Hunt is president of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy and director of policy and strategy at the Arizona State University Rob & Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service. Previously, she ran clean energy and climate change programs at the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Niskanen Center.