A coalition of Canada’s six largest oil sands companies is facing a new complaint with the Competition Bureau for an advertising campaign that Greenpeace Canada says is spreading dangerous climate disinformation.

In Pathways Alliance’s recent “let’s clear the air” campaign that launched in August 2022, the coalition — which includes Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Cenovus Energy, ConocoPhillips Canada, Imperial, MEG Energy, and Suncor Energy — is depicted as a climate leader, taking steps to address the climate crisis.

Greenpeace Canada says in its complaint that this is both false and misleading. The ad campaign is actually trying to shift public opinion to support the continued operation of oil sands production, as well as convince politicians to create a regulatory and subsidy landscape that helps their business and blocks climate action.

“If the Pathways Alliance wants to ‘clear the air,’ let’s start by clarifying what their ad campaign really is: greenwashing,” said Priyanka Vittal, legal counsel for Greenpeace Canada.

The Competition Bureau enforces the Competition Act, which contains provisions to address false or misleading representations and deceptive marketing practices.

Priyanka Vittal is legal counsel at Greenpeace Canada
Greenpeace Canada

Fossil fuel companies and their lobbyists have a long history of promoting oil and gas businesses and “buying goodwill” and legitimacy in the public eye. Pathways Alliance was the most active oil and gas lobbyist in 2022, according to an Environmental Defence report. The Minister of Natural Resources Canada has even repeated the Pathways Alliance sales pitch many times.

But such “goodwill” is bought by producing disinformation illegally to the public, said Tzeporah Berman, the international program director at Stand.earth and the chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.

“These advertisements are not just scientifically inaccurate, they are a moral hazard at this moment in history,” Berman said. “They are designed to subdue concern, to create political support for increased expansion of some of the highest carbon oil on Earth, when the science is clear that we urgently need to stop expansion and wind down if we are going to ensure greater climate safety.”

On digging further into the coalition’s claims of reduced emissions, net zero, and carbon capture technology, Greenpeace found that the messages in the ads did not align with what the companies were actually doing, said Vittal.

“These advertisements are not just scientifically inaccurate, they are a moral hazard at this moment in history. They are designed to subdue concern, to create political support for increased expansion of some of the highest carbon oil on Earth.”

These ads are “transparently a greenwashing tactic,” added Julia Levin, associate director of the national climate program at Environmental Defence, who is also a signatory on the complaint.

Greenpeace’s complaint challenges Pathways Alliance’s claims of making strides to reach “net zero” while they continue to expand oil production, justifying their expansion by investing in risky and ineffective carbon capture technology, and advocating against climate action in Canada, both individually and through industry affiliations.

The “let’s clear the air” campaign acknowledges climate change, but claims that Pathways Alliance is “part of the solution.” This is untrue — the oil produced from Canada’s oil sands is actually some of the most environmentally damaging and energy intensive on the planet.

Catherine McKenna, Canada’s former minister of environment and climate change, and currently the chair of the United Nations High-Level Expert Group, has also added her name to Greenpeace Canada’s complaint.

“The Pathways Alliance of major oil sands companies fill the airwaves with net zero claims, but instead their emissions are going up. They’re investing a fraction of their profits in clean solutions and are lobbying against climate action. Time to draw a red line around greenwashing,” McKenna states.

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

Pathways Alliance did not respond to Ricochet’s request for comment.

The “let’s clear the air” ad campaign has been widespread and has reached audiences through television ads during the FIFA World Cup, the Australian Open, and the 2023 Super Bowl. Pathways Alliance also spent $325,025 on Facebook and Instagram (Meta) advertisements, which was Meta’s third-highest ad buy in Canada during that period.

“There’s a reason why they run these ads. Because they work. They change consumers’ ideas and attitudes about fossil fuels,” said Dr. Melissa Lem, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) previously told Ricochet.

There are clear discrepancies in what the Pathways Alliance is promoting, but key to Greenpeace Canada’s complaint is the degree to which the general public is consuming false and misleading messages. While consumers may want to do the right thing, “fossil fuel companies are capitalizing on consumers who are looking to act ethically and sustainably,” said Vittal. “The more the general public becomes aware, the less these companies will get away with.”

Berman said fossil fuel companies can’t be trusted and their advertising campaigns should be banned.

“The oil and gas industry has been pouring billions of mostly taxpayers’ dollars into their strategies to clean up the oil sands and sequester carbon to reduce emissions. In over a decade they have made very little progress yet use the potential of these technologies to quell legitimate concerns and justify expansion of production. Emissions are growing and they are leaking toxins into our air and water without even telling impacted communities,” said Berman.

The complaint is the second official challenge filed against the oil and gas industry’s greenwashing campaigns and attempts to “buy goodwill.”

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

CAPE filed a complaint against the Canadian Gas Association’s “Fuelling Canada” campaign in September 2022, not long after the Competition Bureau officially included the protection of consumers from greenwashing in their mandate in the same month.

“These efforts are really necessary,” said Levin. “Oil and gas companies know that the public can’t be expected to understand the nuances of what ‘net zero’ means. They’re taking advantage of that and they’re misleading people intentionally, so it’s really important that we crack down on that and take away their ability to mislead the public.”

Greenpeace Canada’s proposed penalties against the oil sands coalition, if they are found to be making misleading claims, include removing any claims of “net zero” or “sustainable” from their public communications, issuing a retraction of these claims, and paying a fine to the Environmental Damages Fund for the rehabilitation of oil sands pollution.

Vittal said the campaign to challenge greenwashing messages in Canada is increasingly gaining momentum. Supporters of the most recent complaint are calling on the government to take action. “It’s important for the federal and provincial governments to pay closer attention to greenwashing and have standards and regulations around that,” she said.

Levin said that it’s not just Pathways Alliance and fossil fuel companies who are misleading Canadians. “[Canada’s] net zero plans federally don’t align with recommendations from the UN either and they aren’t actually aligned with science,” added Levin.