How fossil fuel companies push disinformation through media campaigns

Should Canada's public broadcaster be running ads that feature false claims?
Photo: CEC's recent "Cleaner, Closer, Committed to Net Zero" campaign featured billboards in New York City and Washington, D.C.

This is the first in a two-part series examining fossil fuel advertising in Canada, the implications for news media, and the movement to hold industry accountable for what they tell Canadians.

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It could be a promotional video for a resort spa retreat, complete with beautiful shots of the pristine Canadian landscape and cheerful music. Then a voiceover kicks in, promising that the oil and gas industry has been tackling greenhouse gas emissions for more than a decade.

“Canada’s oil and gas industry is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” the voice insists.

The advertisement is produced by the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC), an Alberta government project dedicated to advocating for the province’s fossil fuels. The voiceover assures that while greenhouse gas emissions are a serious problem, Canada’s oil and gas industry is using new “Cleantech” technology, including “safe” (and undeveloped) carbon capture and storage technology to fight climate change and that “virtually all oil sands producers are committed to reaching net zero by 2050.”

What the ad does not explain is that it uses skewed data and distorted comparisons, obscuring the reasons why Canada has seemingly reduced emissions — it absolutely hasn’t — and offers only a tiny fragment of a much larger picture.

For example, the ad states that carbon capture technology has removed “over 44 million tonnes of CO2” in Canada, not revealing that this is only a small fraction — 0.3 per cent of Canada’s whopping 14,000 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in the last two decades.

Such ads have become commonplace in Canadian media. Pathways Alliance, a coalition of six of the largest oil and gas companies representing over 90 per cent of oil sands production in Canada, was a sponsor of a FIFA World Cup podcast. The CEC has an ad running on major media — including the CBC — that makes a new case for “ethical oil”. Meanwhile, TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink project has an ad campaign touting its workers as “stewarts and defenders of the land.”

“The fact of the matter is that in a climate emergency there’s no such thing as ethical oil,” said Environmental Defence Oil and Gas program manager Dave Gray-Donald.

The Pathways Alliance “Clear the Air” national ad campaign aims to clarify to Canadians the industry’s plan to achieve net zero emissions. Gray-Donald says claims of reaching “net zero” is “hard to believe given [that] major companies want to expand production,” companies like Suncor, one of the six member companies of the Coalition.

“[Media’s] first priority is supposed to be informing the public, and [instead] you’re providing a platform for misinformation. That seems like a breach to me of your responsibility to the public.”

By promoting oil and gas as a clean choice, these companies are being allowed to mislead Canadians by presenting Canadian oil and gas production as somehow a “cleaner” and more “ethical” option to consumers — an idea rooted in the racist assumption that oil-producing countries in the Middle East don't respect human rights, and that Canada does, which is obviously not the case.

The oil produced from Canada’s oil sands is actually some of the most environmentally damaging and energy intensive on the planet.

“The Canadian Energy Centre itself published data recently showing that Canadian oil and gas has gotten more polluting. The carbon intensity has gotten more polluting over 2010 to 2020. Overall it hasn’t gotten cleaner, they’re producing much more of it. Much more is being produced and it’s more polluting than it was,” Gray-Donald said.

The propaganda machine still insisting Canada’s oil and gas is clean and ethical

The fossil fuel industry has long sought to legitimize itself in the public eye through advertising campaigns, or what DeSmog’s Stella Levantesi calls “buying goodwill,” by pouring money into sponsoring art, sport, and even educational material.

These companies seek to maintain their status in a world that is increasingly opening its eyes to the historical and current damage done by oil and gas. People are becoming more concerned about ethical production and the ramifications of major carbon emitters on the environment and humanity.

Over the past 30 years, the five biggest oil companies in the world have invested over US $3.6 billion for “reputation-building ads,” clearly indicating that there is reason to be paying advertising so much attention — because advertising works.

The latest IPCC report states that corporate agents have “attempted to derail climate mitigation by targeted lobbying and doubt-inducing media strategies,” such as greenwashing. This was the first time the IPCC has acknowledged the role of corporations in derailing climate action. According to the report, such advertising can lead to polluting products and services to become normalized and perceived as necessary. The report therefore calls for the regulation of any greenhouse gas-emitting products.

These lobby groups, like the Canadian Gas Association (CGA), which touts itself as a “reliable” provider of information that consumers need to “make energy-informed decisions,” or the Canadian Energy Centre ads that claims Canada’s industry “is committed to producing cleaner energy through clean technology,” are misinforming the public by obscuring data about their emissions impact and advocating for energy that is not only detrimental to the environment but also to public health.

Spreading this type of disinformation has a name. Harvard scholars say “paltering” is the active use of truthful statements to convey a misleading impression. In an interview with The Guardian, Australian climate research fellow John Cook said that big oil and gas companies consistently use this tactic to spread disinformation.

“The Minister of Natural Resources Canada has repeated the Pathways Alliance sales pitch many times and they get favourable coverage in major media.”

“It is not accurate to say that this product is a global leader,” said Gray-Donald, adding that these ads tell Canadians “that the oil and gas industry in Canada is supportive of an energy transition when in fact they are advocating to expand production.

“These ads try to paint that picture that the industry is cooperative and clean when there is no evidence that that is happening or happening nearly fast enough.”

Similarly, the Pathways Alliance campaign paints a sympathetic portrait of the oil and gas industry by acknowledging climate change and speaking of their role as “part of the solution.”

Gray-Donald calls this greenwashing. “They are proposing to invest in carbon capture utilization of storage (CCUS) if the federal government puts in even more subsidies,” he said. “CCUS is a risky and very costly technology that has failed at facilities all over the world, so it’s very risky to depend on it. There are much more cost effective ways of reducing emissions.”

Pathways Alliance and CEC could not be reached for comment.

Environmental Defence's Dave Gray-Donald

Moreover, he said, CCUS “does not capture scope three emissions. Those are emissions from the final end use of a product including driving a car or eating at home (gas). Pathways Alliance is only talking about emissions from the creation [and] the production of fossil fuel products. So it’s a minuscule part of the overall emissions of these companies produced in the life cycle of their products.

“It’s very costly [and] risky. They have this massive ad and media campaign to convince people that it is the path forward… And it appears to be working.”

Gray-Donald said these groups invest heavily in lobbying pushing for industry-friendly policy. “We crunched the numbers in September. Pathways Alliance was the most active lobbyist and Natural Resources Canada was the most lobbied ministry. The Minister of Natural Resources Canada has repeated the Pathways Alliance sales pitch many times and they get favourable coverage in major media,” he said.

“So is it effective? It seems to be. Something seems to be working for the Pathways Alliance. They bought a front cover wrap ad on the Toronto Star. They’ve had ads in movie theatres [and] TV. They’ve really pushed their message out there and it appears that it is working.”

The Pathways Alliance Coalition purchased a front cover wrap advertisement on the Toronto Star cover on October 8, 2022. According to Environmental Defence, Pathways Alliance was the most active lobbyist and Natural Resources Canada was the most lobbied ministry.
Anupriya Dasgupta

Ad Standards Canada is the organization responsible for providing a check on fair advertising, and broadcasting misleading information is against their regulations. However, Ad Standards does not conduct preliminary reviews of advertisements and campaigns unless this service is specifically sought out by a broadcaster. “The process of compliance with the Code is complaint-driven,” a spokeperson with Ad Standards said.

When CBC advertising undermines CBC journalism

Whether the CBC — which has been seen to run both Canadian Energy Centre as well as Pathways Alliance ads — does any kind of preliminary advertisement content screening is unclear.

According to their public affairs team, the CBC relies on pre-clearance services provided by Ad Standards Canada and ThinkTV, but they do not clearly indicate whether this process is mandated.

For oil and gas ads in particular, the CBC’s guidelines point to two specific policies. One that allows “advocacy advertising” “to allow open exchange of ideas on issues of public interest or concern,” and the second that requires any advocacy advertisers to be clearly identified for viewers, as confirmed by CBC’s head of public affairs Chuck Thompson.

“People will consistently assume that the CBC won’t let something run if it is totally false. They’re trustworthy. That’s why these companies and industry groups choose particular outlets to run their stuff on... I think it’s disingenuous to throw your hands up and say ‘not our circus, not our monkeys.’”

The advocacy policy clearly states that the ads “must not imply an endorsement on the part of the CBC,” a line which is reiterated by Thompson who emphasized a “complete separation” between these ads and CBC News.

“That line does not exist in the minds of the public,” argues climate journalist Amy Westervelt, who has extensively covered media and advertising conflicts.

“People will consistently assume that the CBC won’t let something run if it is totally false. They’re trustworthy. That’s why these companies and industry groups choose particular outlets to run their stuff on. They’re specifically purchasing ads on the CBC because they want the credibility that lends them. I think it’s disingenuous [for the CBC] to throw your hands up and say ‘not our circus, not our monkeys.’”

Furthermore, “advocacy advertising” in particular has been exposed as a tactic created by the oil and gas industry to allow them more “social license” and to give themselves “a larger voice in the public square,” explains Westervelt. In the 60s and the 70s, Mobil Oil’s marketing team came up with “idea advertising” or “advocacy” advertising to push a notion of corporate free speech.

Westervelt finds this amusing. “It’s very clever… To advertise ideas and policy positions, brand awareness, and not limit them to just advertising the gas they were selling.”

“The idea that industries need to be part of the open exchange of ideas is something that oil companies initially introduced. A company or an industry group with loads and loads of funding and status,” she said, “has far more voice than the average citizen. It’s not equal.”

The CBC’s position on how important it is to identify the advertiser barely has any weight here. Without the scientific literacy and knowledge required to decipher the cherry-picked claims made by these fossil fuel ads, obscured as ‘scientific facts,’ it is easy to conflate dubious claims with climate science as long as both follow the same general narrative that climate change is a problem.

Climate journalist Amy Westervelt

As Canada’s national broadcaster, which has covered climate issues extensively over the years, the CBC’s journalism has credibility with viewers who trust what they see and hear on the channel to be factual.

“It undermines the work that their climate journalists are doing. It undermines the credibility of that work, whether that’s intentional or not,” argues Westervelt. “The CBC are passively putting their stamp of approval on that message. It’s definitely a choice.”

Westervelt compares this to a larger trend of media outlets denying taking accountability for such ads. While technically this may not be against the regulations of the CBC or other outlets, and in many cases it is even quite difficult to outrightly suggest that some of these claims are untrue because of paltering, it cannot really be justified, particularly when such ads are being platformed by a national broadcaster like the CBC with its wide reach and near-impenetrable reputation.

“‘It’s not illegal’ is not an ethics policy,” Westervelt said. “Your first priority is supposed to be informing the public, and you’re providing a platform for misinformation. That seems like a breach to me of your responsibility to the public.”

Doctors calling for a ban on fossil fuel ads

Earlier this year, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) released a statement calling for a ban on all fossil fuel advertising.

The joint letter from organizations representing more than 700,000 health professionals in Canada was released in response to concerns that advertising that promotes the use of fossil fuel products is a public health issue by pushing to maintain a lifestyle of consumption that relies on products that release harmful emissions into the atmosphere.

The statement was followed by an official complaint to the Competition Bureau in September against the Canadian Gas Association’s misleading ad campaign “Fuelling Canada.”

“There’s a reason why they run these ads. Because they work. They change consumers’ ideas and attitudes about fossil fuels.”

This took place just a few days after the Bureau held a Green Growth Summit where commissioner Matthew Boswell discussed the importance of the Bureau’s role in facilitating the transition to a green economy by protecting consumers from attempts at greenwashing.

In November, CAPE received confirmation that the Competition Bureau had opened an investigation into the Canadian Gas Association.

Health and climate advocates are now looking to the history of tobacco advertising and the legislative process it took to ban it.

Major medical bodies in Canada, including the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Canada, College of Family Physicians of Canada, and the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment, have all signed an open letter from CAPE.

The letter discusses the growing number of health concerns that are related to the causes and effects of climate change, making fossil fuel combustion a public health crisis. Concerns include rapidly decreasing air quality, extreme weather event related deaths, and the rise of zoonotic diseases.

“Fossil fuels and extraction is a health issue so I think it makes a lot of sense for health professionals to get involved,” said Dr. Melissa Lem, President-elect of CAPE and one of the six complainants filing against the Canadian Gas Association’s ad campaign.

Dr. Melissa Lem, President-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).

“We care and we see the devastation that climate change has caused just over the last year or two in Canada, especially here on the west coast, which is one of the major motivators for me signing on.”

“With the heat dome killing hundreds of people within two weeks followed by a town burning to the ground from wildfires, climate change is here. We just can’t tolerate the fossil fuel industry’s greenwashing anymore,” Lem said.

More and more health professionals have joined the call for climate advocacy, including the World Health Organization’s health pavilion hosted at COP27, citing concerns about their patients’ welfare, who are being fed disinformation and have little knowledge about the dangers of natural gas combustion in their homes and its impact on the environment.

“There’s a reason why they run these ads. Because they work. They change consumers’ ideas and attitudes about fossil fuels,” she said.

Decades of debate and denial over whether climate change exists or not has wasted precious time, allowing major oil and gas companies to lock in projects, lobby big ministries, and buy influence over legislation, media outlets, and other major national corporations.

Lem believes that reducing the demand of fossil fuel products and challenging the legitimacy of fossil fuel giants through the media is a crucial step in phasing the industry out completely in the near future.

“The fossil fuel industry’s campaign to convince people that climate change does not exist failed mostly in Canada. Most people now understand that it exists,” said Lem, but she warned that industry tactics have only shifted.

“Now they’re moving to greenwashing to try to get people to feel less guilty or to convince them to continue to use fossil fuels. It’s just the next step in the disinformation campaign and we’re doing everything we can to prevent it.”

Read part two - The propaganda playbook: How the PR industry shifted from tobacco to fossil fuels

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