Environmental, consumer groups announce groundbreaking greenwashing lawsuit against DC gas company

Media Contacts
Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Taran Volckhausen

Former Communications Associate, The Public Interest Network

Johanna Neumann

Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Lawsuit claims utility company Washington Gas misleads customers about environmental impacts of methane gas

WASHINGTON – U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research & Policy Center and ClientEarth announced a lawsuit against Washington Gas in District of Columbia Superior Court on Thursday over misleading customers on the environmental impacts of natural gas. As a first-of-its-kind suit in the United States, the groups claim Washington Gas, which delivers gas to more than one million residential, commercial and industrial customers, has violated Washington, D.C.’s consumer protection laws. 

“Washington Gas is greenwashing methane gas in its materials,” said Matt Casale, director of U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Environment Campaigns. “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. 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 are taking legal action to require Washington Gas to stop using misleading language and images that promote natural gas’ environmental benefits in their customer-facing materials. Washington Gas consistently refers to methane gas in customer-facing materials as “clean” and sustainable, and even includes on its bills a colorful picture of flowers, with text describing natural gas as a “smart choice for the environment” compared to electrification.

“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. “We believe Washington Gas is violating U.S. consumer protection law by greenwashing the environmental impact of its highly polluting fossil fuels – its customers, and the public, are owed the truth. We cannot underestimate the real world impact energy company greenwashing has on the pace of change.”

Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a relatively short-lived but super-potent greenhouse gas with 80 times the climate-warming harm of carbon dioxide over its first 20 years in the atmosphere. It commonly escapes when extracting and transporting natural gas – making it a significant contributor to climate change before it is even burned. Then, when it is burned, the combustion of natural gas releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Methane is responsible for nearly half of global warming to date, and in D.C., despite the company’s claims, methane gas represents 23% of the District’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Washington Gas’ claims are also out of step with D.C.’s climate policies. In July, the D.C. council passed legislation that requires all new buildings and substantial renovations to be net-zero starting in 2026. To achieve the goal, the bill bans most use of methane gas in new buildings. At the same time, the council passed legislation committing to make the entire city carbon neutral by 2045.

“The sooner America gets off gas, the better,” said Johanna Neumann, senior director of Environment America Research & 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.”

Washington Gas is not alone in greenwashing the environmental impacts of methane gas. In a survey of utility marketing practices, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research & Policy Center found examples of similar practices by utilities in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas.

With extreme heat and drought affecting much of the country, the impacts of climate change are already  visible this summer.  According to data from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Berkeley Earth, 2021 was the seventh in a row in which global temperatures were more than 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial average.