Protesters hold "End Methane" sign at a march in Washington DC

Environmental activists with the group Extinction Rebellion D.C. participate in an Earth Day rally against fossil fuels on April 22, 2022 in Washington, D.C. The group is protesting Washington Gas's use of methane and their planned expansion of gas infrastructure. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

First-of-Its-Kind Greenwashing Lawsuit Targets Gas Giant for Methane Lies

Washington Gas's customers, said the plaintiffs, "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."

Warning that a Washington, D.C. utility has run afoul of the U.S. capital's consumer protection law, three public interest groups on Thursday announced a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against Washington Gas Light Company over what they called the "greenwashing" of its use of highly pollutive methane gas.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research and Policy Center, and ClientEarth filed their lawsuit in the District of Columbia Superior Court, saying Washington Gas is consistently misleading more than one million customers by advertising its use of natural gas as a "smart choice for the environment."

"Washington Gas consistently refers to fossil gas in customer-facing materials as clean and sustainable... compared to electrification," said ClientEarth in a statement.

"The truth is that methane is a super-potent greenhouse gas that pollutes our air and worsens the climate crisis."

The company has focused heavily on convincing customers that using natural gas, whose main ingredient is methane, is a sustainable way to power their homes and workplaces--despite the fact that methane has 80 times the climate-heating potency of carbon emissions in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

With fracking driving a surge in global gas production over the past two decades, methane is now responsible for nearly half of planetary heating to date and for 23% of Washington, D.C.'s greenhouse gas emissions.

Washington Gas's customers would never know this from the company's marketing materials, however, said the groups suing the utility.

"Washington Gas is greenwashing methane gas in its materials," said Matt Casale, director of environmental campaigns for U.S. PIRG Education Fund. "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," Casale added. "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."

The groups pointed to Washington Gas's claims that natural gas is "clean, efficient, and reliable" and its illustrations of colorful flowers on household bills as examples of the company's deception of customers.

"Companies are legally obliged to be honest with the public, including about how their businesses may impact the environment and safety of consumers," said ClientEarth lawyer Tyler Highful.

The groups noted that Washington D.C.'s Customer Protection Procedures Act prohibits companies from engaging in "an unfair or deceptive trade practice, whether or not any consumer is in fact misled, deceived, or damaged."

"The truth is that all fossil fuels must be wound down and eliminated from our energy systems in order to limit planetary warming," said ClientEarth, echoing warnings from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

While assuring its customers that the use of natural gas is "sustainable," Washington Gas is planning an expansion of its gas infrastructure, even as the D.C. Council passed legislation requiring all new buildings in the District to achieve net-zero emissions starting in 2026 and banned the use of methane gas in new construction.

According to an analysis of other utilities' marketing practices by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Environment America Research and Policy Center, companies in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas are also consistently trying to convince customers that natural gas will not harm the environment.

"The sooner America gets off gas, the better," said Johanna Neumann, senior director of Environment America Research and Policy Center's Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy. "Today's lawsuit signals that utility marketing campaigns that try to sell 'clean' fossil fuels are officially off limits."

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