Photo of an ad reading
A Canada Action ad corrected by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). Photo: CAPE.

Greenwashing: A Hot Mess

Greenwashing is marketing that misleads us into thinking a product is environmentally friendly, even though it isn’t.

Recently, promoters of Canada’s fossil gas industry — or “natural gas,” to use the greenwashed term — got caught greenwashing
even more than usual.

In January, Ad Standards Canada, which regulates advertising, found that the oil and gas advocacy group Canada Action Coalition — of “I ♡ OIL SANDS” fame — gave an “overall misleading impression that B.C. LNG (liquefied natural gas) is good for the environment, amounting to greenwashing.”

Gas is compressed into LNG to be shipped around the world. Fossil gas releases enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions throughout its lifecycle starting with extraction, which in Canada is mainly through fracking, to shipping and ultimately to being burned. Canada Action says it plans to appeal the decision.

The finding was an interim decision from the regulator. Someone leaked that document to the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, against the regulator’s rules. As a result, Ad Standards says it won’t make its final report public.

In another attempt to clamp down on greenwashing, NDP MP Charlie Angus has put forward a bill in Parliament to ban fossil fuel companies from advertising because they lie so much and their products are dangerous to the planet.

Angus and others have likened fossil fuel ads to those of the tobacco industry, which were banned years ago. Without even including the obvious climate impacts, Angus notes that air pollution from fossil fuels leads to many premature deaths in Canada and around the world.

Fossil fuel companies and their supporters, including in the Conservative party, have gone ballistic, attacking Angus at every opportunity, speaking against his motion in Parliament and with at least one supporter calling his office saying they’ll force crude oil down his throat.

Environmental Defence, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and a number of affected residents have also filed a complaint against Enbridge with Canada’s Competition Bureau. They are calling out the fossil fuel giant for using misleading language that claims gas is “clean energy” and “low carbon.” The complainants also take issue with Enbridge’s claim that that gas is the most cost-effective way Ontarians can heat their homes, pointing instead to evidence that heat pumps are in fact the least expensive option. The investigation is ongoing.

In June, in response to proposed federal legislation that would require companies to prove their environmental claims, the most prominent oil sands marketing and lobbying group deleted its entire website. The Pathways Alliance, which counts the largest oil sands producers in Canada as members (including Suncor, Cenovus, Imperial and CNRL), also deleted all its social media posts and YouTube videos, saying the legislation in Bill C-59 would limited what the group could say. Environmental groups and others took this as evidence Pathways knew it couldn’t back up its claims.

Pathways Alliance ad on a TTC bus, April 2023. In June 2024, Pathways Alliance deleted the contents of its website and all social media in response to proposed federal regulation that would require companies to prove their environmental claims. Photo: David Gray-Donald.

Since its formation in 2022, Pathways has said that oil sands extraction could increase while at the same time emissions from those operations could be reduced by building highly-subsidized carbon capture infrastructure. Carbon capture technology has a high failure rate in the real world. Pathways went so far as to suggest they had a credible plan to reach “net zero emissions.” Pathways ads have covered the outside of TTC vehicles in Toronto, appeared as full pages in the Toronto Star and been seen during the NFL Super Bowl.

This article was updated after the print publication to mention the Pathways Alliance response to Bill C-59.

Disclosure: the article author worked for Environmental Defence from 2022 until March 2023.

This article appeared in the 2024 Summer issue.