Oil sands lobby strip mines website after Canada cracks down on greenwash

Climate Energy

Oil sands lobby strip mines website after Canada cracks down on greenwash

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Oil and gas lobby cleans up website after new truth in advertising law passed by Canadian Parliament. 

The Pathways Alliance, whose six members account for about 95% of Canada’s oil sands production, has scrubbed all messaging from its website and social media feeds, citing uncertainty over a new anti-greenwashing rule poised to become federal law.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), long known as the country’s “apex oil and gas lobby,” has also scaled back its website, The Canadian Press reports.

Pathways members have publicly committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands production by 2050. The consortium previously spent millions of dollars on a countrywide public relations blitz contending that the oil sands are committed to helping fight climate change.

But in recent years, independent analysts have pointed to a growing gap between the companies’ promises and the absence of any actual emission reductions from a sector that is still increasing its climate pollution. Pathways’ climate targets have appeared to hinge on continuing demands for billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that has been under development for decades—and whose proponents admit it won’t be ready to deliver as intended before 2035 at the earliest.

Just Tell The Truth

The omnibus Bill C-59, which passed the third reading in the Senate Wednesday and will soon become law, contains a truth-in-advertising amendment that would require corporations across all industries to provide evidence to support their environmental claims, CP writes.

“This is basically a very modest provision in the Competition Act. It simply requires companies to tell the truth and to have an evidence base to back up their claims,” said Leah Temper, program director at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), one of several groups that have been pushing hard to challenge fossil industry greenwashing.

“So I do think this reaction is very telling.”

The bill’s wording says businesses must not make claims to the public about what they are doing to protect the environment or mitigate the effects of climate change unless those claims are based on “adequate and proper substantiation in accordance with internationally recognized methodology.”

The provision is not fossil fuel-specific, but applies to all businesses and economic sectors.

“One of the things that’s really important is that in our democracy, people build their positions and their decisions around facts,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Sackville, Nova Scotia on Thursday, after being asked about Pathways’ decision to remove content from its website.

“It’s really important that organizations that put facts out there take every care to be truthful and be grounded in reality.”

“Freedom of expression, freedom of people to share their points of view, is extraordinarily important… (But) it’s really important that organizations that put facts out there take every care to be truthful and be grounded in reality.”

All Promise, No Delivery 

The industry’s reaction suggests that common sense standard was too steep a hill for Pathways or CAPP to climb.

“For some time now, our research and analysis has been identifying significant gaps between the emissions reduction promises that the Pathways Alliance first made in 2021, and their actions to deliver those promises,” MC Bouchard, director of the Pembina Institute’s oil and gas program, said in a release. “It remains the case that the group has yet to make any final investment decisions on carbon capture projects, or on other technologies, that would meaningfully reduce their emissions in line with their previously stated 2030 and 2050 targets—despite the existence of significant public subsidies to support such investments.”

That leaves the oil sands as “Canada’s highest emitting industry, and those emissions continue to grow,” Bouchard said. “Today’s developments provide an opportunity to refocus the discussion away from industry intentions and promises, and instead shift to a reasoned conversation about the need for regulations to ensure the industry decarbonizes.”

As of Thursday, CP writes, all that remains of Pathways’ extensive PR and messaging operation is a website notice saying the alliance has removed its content due to concerns around the anti-greenwashing provision in C-59.

“Imminent amendments to the Competition Act will create significant uncertainty for Canadian companies that want to communicate publicly about the work they are doing to improve their environmental performance,” the statement reads.

“With uncertainty on how the new law will be interpreted and applied, any clarity the Competition Bureau can provide through specific guidance may help direct our communications approach in the future.”

The scrubbed website doesn’t even list media or other contacts, and CP said Pathways hadn’t responded to an interview request.

CAPP said Thursday it had also “chosen to reduce the amount of information available on its website and other digital platforms.”

A Big Win for Climate Groups

Climate groups took an exuberant victory lap Thursday and credited several different organizations—including CAPE, Ecojustice, Équiterre, and the Quebec Environmental Law Centre—with bringing it about.

In the last year, Canadian green groups have lodged at least four formal complaints with the federal Competition Bureau alleging greenwashing or false environmental claims by fossil fuel companies or banks, CP says.

“Canada badly needed this legal reform because some of the most powerful industries prefer faking rather than taking action on carbon neutrality.”

The Pathways Alliance was the target of one of those complaints. Environmental groups have said the consortium’s ads and public claims about net-zero are misleading, as the Alliance has not yet made a final investment decision on its proposed C$16.5-billion carbon capture and storage network.

But while the groups were pleased with Thursday’s developments, with CAPE’s Temper declaring herself “thrilled and surprised” that Pathways reacted so strongly, they say there’s still more ground to cover.

“We hope the greenwashing amendments to the Competition Act in Bill C-59 represent the start, not the end, of government action on this issue,” Ecojustice lawyer Tanya Jemec said in a release. “While the passage of Bill C-59 is a significant step towards clamping down on rampant greenwashing in Canada, gaps remain that will make it challenging to hold companies to account.”

“Canada badly needed this legal reform because some of the most powerful industries prefer faking rather than taking action on carbon neutrality,” added Équiterre government affairs director Marc-André Viau. “The companies that are actually making significant and meaningful progress on environmental and climate fronts will welcome this levelling of the playing field.”

Burden of Proof

In a statement of its own, CAPP said the anti-greenwashing provision will have the effect of silencing the energy industry and curtailing Canadians’ ability to participate in debates around climate and environmental policy, CP reports.

“The burden of proof provision included in the amendments means those making the complaint face no risk or accountability. Rather, the burden falls entirely on companies,” said CAPP President and CEO Lisa Baiton.

“Businesses across Canada are being put at significant risk for communicating their efforts to reduce their impact on the environment.”

In the Calgary Herald last week, columnist Don Braid similarly blamed Bill C-59 for the Alberta government’s decision to shutter its much-mocked Canada energy “war room” and fold its operations into the provincial intergovernmental affairs ministry.

But Temper told CP that as climate change impact accelerate, it has become increasingly common for businesses in all industries to make questionable environmental claims in their advertising.

“It has been the Wild West. Companies have been able to make almost any claim they want, using terms such as net-carbon neutral, without any reliable evidence base.”

“It has been the Wild West. Companies have been able to make almost any claim they want, using terms such as net-carbon neutral, without any reliable evidence base,” Temper said.

“Hopefully this (legislation) will represent a sea change.”

Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz has called the anti-greenwashing provision an “undemocratic gag order” that creates needless uncertainty for businesses. On Thursday, a joint statement from Schulz, Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean, and Premier Danielle Smith called C-59 “part of an agenda to create chaos and uncertainty for the purpose of phasing out the [fossil] energy industry altogether.” [So you’re saying the industry can’t exist if it’s forced to tell the truth? Had to ask—Ed.]

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce said the new rules run at “cross-purposes” to the climate ambitions of industries across all sectors.

The Chamber said the rules will also limit disclosure of climate targets and ambitions to investors and financial markets, putting Canadian companies at a distinct disadvantage relative to companies operating in other jurisdictions.

“Changes to Canada’s Competition Act will be far-reaching and risk the environmental progress industries writ large have been working toward,” said Chamber president Deborah Yedlin.

The debate over environmental claims in advertising has been heating up worldwide, CP notes. Earlier this month, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres urged countries to ban advertising by fossil fuel companies in the face of the climate crisis.

The main body of this report was first published by The Canadian Press on June 20, 2024.

Written by

Mitchell Beer

Mitchell is founding publisher and managing editor of The Energy Mix. He is rumoured to be a frighteningly fast writer, after working seven years as a journalist, 35-plus as a commercial writer, 45-plus as a sustainable energy and climate specialist, and now again as a journalist and editor. In October, 2019, he delivered a TEDx Ottawa talk on building wider public support for faster, deeper carbon cuts. He received the Clean50 Lifetime Achievement Award in October 2022.