The Environmental Defenders Office, acting on behalf of the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), has filed a Federal Court case against gas giant Santos over its claims natural gas is “clean fuel” and that it has a credible pathway to net zero emissions by 2040.

ACCR will argue the claims – contained in the company’s 2020 Annual Report – constitute misleading or deceptive conduct under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) and the Australian Consumer Law.

This is the first court case in the world to challenge the veracity of a company’s net zero emissions target, as well as the first in Australia raising the issue of climate greenwashing against the oil and gas industry.

It is also a landmark, world-first test case in relation to the viability of carbon capture and storage, and the environmental impacts of blue hydrogen, increasingly touted as a key element in gas companies’ pathways toward net zero emissions.

Santos’ claims – “Clean” gas & a “credible” net zero pathway

Santos Ltd is one of Australia’s largest gas companies, and the biggest domestic gas supplier in the country.

In Australia its major projects include oil and gas extraction off the coast of Western Australia, as well as in the vast Cooper and Eromanga Basins that span South Australia and Queensland.

Santos is also a major player in coal seam gas, developing vast areas of the Surat and Bowen Basins in Queensland and planning a major new CSG project around the northern NSW agricultural hub of Narrabri.

In 2019-20, Santos was responsible for approximately 7.74 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions from its direct operations, with the end-use of the natural gas it supplied emitting an additional 28.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Despite this, Santos describes itself as a “clean energy” provider in its 2020 Annual Report, stating that natural gas is a “clean fuel”.

It has also sought to assure investors and the public that it has a clear and credible pathway to achieve net zero emissions by 2040.

This pathway is heavily reliant on both carbon capture and storage (CCS)processes and the production of “blue hydrogen”.

However, ACCR alleges that Santos failed to disclose that it has firm plans to increase its greenhouse gas emissions by developing new or existing oil and gas project including the Barossa, Dorado and Narrabri LNG projects.  ACCR also alleges that Santos failed to disclose that its net zero plans depend upon a range of undisclosed qualifications and assumptions about CCS.

In addition, although blue hydrogen is increasingly touted as a key element in  gas companies’ pathways toward net zero emissions, scientists and even key gas industry figures have raised questions over its environmental impacts in comparison to other energy sources.

ACCR says that these issues call into question whether Santos had reasonable grounds to assert it has a “clear and credible” plan to reach net zero emissions by 2040.

On behalf of ACCR, we will argue that in making the above claims Santos potentially engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct under both the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) and the Australian Consumer Law.

We are asking the court to grant an injunction requiring Santos to correct the record publicly on these statements, and prohibit Santos from engaging in similar misleading or deceptive conduct in the future.

The Impact of Greenwashing – Investors & Environment

This case is about holding gas companies like Santos to account for the claims they make about their product and future in a low-carbon world.

Our client, ACCR, is a shareholder advocacy organisation focused on how listed companies, industry associations, and investors are managing climate, labour, human rights and governance issues.

They are also investors in Santos, taking this action to ensure the company and others like it fulfil their legal responsibility to be transparent and open with shareholders like ACCR.

Companies have an obligation to be upfront and honest with investors – this is particularly important to investors who are trying to assess which companies will survive and thrive in a rapidly changing global energy economy.

Misleading information can have a dramatic effect on the market, on investors, and ultimately on the environment.

It can leave investors vulnerable to major losses. It can skew the market unfairly in favour of companies failing to adequately respond to the climate change, and unfairly away from companies that are acting responsibly.

In doing so, misleading information about natural gas and the transition towards a lower carbon economy can obstruct an effective and timely response to the climate crisis.

A genuine transition to a low-carbon energy economy is crucial if Australia is serious about meeting its commitments under the Paris Agreement and ensuring the world avoids the worst impacts of climate change.

It’s essential that energy companies play their part and are upfront and honest about their role in this crisis and the challenges they face in adapting to a low-carbon economy.

This landmark case will help to ensure energy companies like Santos are held to account for the statements they make to investors and the public in the face of the global challenge of climate change.