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Carbon emissions to pool noodles: oilsands producers seek a ‘beautiful’ rebrand

A leak of the newest industry PR offensive reveals an effort to steer attention away from pollution and toward the potential of carbon capture

Alberta’s major oilsands producers want you to look at a barrel of bitumen and see a pool noodle. 

A leaked PR campaign from the oilsands giants shows the companies are eager to rebrand the carbon-intensive industry as a net-zero resource that effortlessly turns its emissions into everything from water toys to carbon fibre boats and microchips. 

Currently being tested in focus groups, the Oil Sands Pathway Alliance campaign focuses on transforming carbon into everyday products with the tagline “Energy. Beautifully Designed.”

A pitch video, initially posted online for focus group participants to view, but which has now been taken down, was sent to The Narwhal by Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, shows what the campaign will prioritize. 

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“Creating jet fuel out of our petroleum while using carbon from that process to make carbon fibre boats is a beautiful thing,” a voice over the video says. 

“Developing microchips out of carbon capture for refined oil is beautiful. Producing barrels of oil and making Styrofoam chips out of the resulting carbon. That’s beautiful. Producing oil and from the resulting carbon making pool noodles that kids can float on. Beautiful.”

The campaign was prepared for a group composed of Suncor, Imperial, Canadian Natural Resources, MEG Energy, ConocoPhillips and Cenovus, who together are responsible for what they say is about 95 per cent of oilsands production. Only MEG Energy responded to The Narwhal’s requests for comment, reiterating statements given by Pathways Alliance.

The alliance was formed to push forward a plan for net-zero emissions from the oilsands by 2050.  

But the focus on promoting positive messages about the oilsands, as revealed in the leaked material, is only the latest in a series of public relations and marketing campaigns over the years by both industry and government. Many of the campaigns were aimed at countering criticism about environmental impacts of extracting heavy oil from Alberta’s oilsands,  a region that holds the world’s third largest reserves of crude, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and requires large amounts of energy and water in production.

“I think this will be the fifth or sixth attempt to rebrand the oilsands,” Stewart said.

A pitch video for a proposed oilsands PR campaign that was shown to focus group participants. Video: Oil Sands Pathways Alliance.

The basic premise of the Pathways plan to achieve net-zero emissions is this: continue producing bitumen in the oilsands, but couple that production with carbon capture and utilization technologies in a bid to decrease the overall carbon pollution of the industry. This includes a carbon dioxide pipeline from the oilsands region to a sequestration hub approximately 440 kilometres away, near Cold Lake, Alta. 

In a video posted to the Pathways site, MEG Energy President and CEO Derek Evans said it will be the largest carbon capture, utilization and storage facility in the world, “in terms of breadth” and the amount of carbon dioxide it would capture. 

The plan to remove emissions relies heavily on the development of new technologies to achieve its goals and the campaign is vague about the details of converting carbon to pool noodles. 

“This suggests that we can somehow separate the bad stuff — carbon — from the good stuff — oil as energy,” Shane Gunster, an associate professor in the school of communication at Simon Fraser University, told The Narwhal. “And then that bad stuff we can, with technology, magically turn it into the good stuff that we want.”

The plan highlights projects in Norway and the Netherlands as inspiration for the carbon capture utilization and storage component of the plan, though these projects aren’t yet operational. 

‘The wonderful world of oil’ not a new advertising strategy: expert

The proposed campaign would join ongoing efforts from industry groups like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and its campaign offshoot Canada’s Energy Citizens, which describes itself as the largest oil and natural gas advocacy organization in Canada. The Alberta government’s own war room — officially dubbed the Canadian Energy Centre — also pumps out content touting the responsible development of the province’s oil and gas sector. 

The recent public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns called for a long-term rebranding strategy in collaboration with industry and pointed to past campaigns from individual oil companies and organizations as “flawed in their approach.”

Patrick McCurdy, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Ottawa, has tracked the last 15 years of evolving marketing strategies of oilsands stakeholders.

In a 2018 paper, McCurdy found that the recommendation to brand and better sell the benefits of the oilsands dates back to a 1995 report from the Alberta Chamber of Resources — a resource sector industry group. But that recommendation wasn’t taken seriously until 2010 as a response to mounting pressure from environmental campaigns. 

That was the year the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers launched its “responsible Canadian energy” campaign alongside efforts by the Government of Alberta to pitch the oilsands directly to U.S. consumers. 

The focus of that campaign was on oilsands workers, while simultaneously extolling the work done to protect the environment from the worst effects of oil extraction.

These latest ads represent the evolution of the marketing strategies at play, morphing from a focus on what companies are doing to protect the environment to a focus on how oil and gas can improve lives. But for McCurdy, it’s nothing new. 

“The wonderful world of oil … was a common advertising strategy,” he said in an interview with The Narwhal, noting it’s a “strategy that harkens back to the rise of petrochemicals” in the middle of the 20th century.

The proposed Pathways campaign riffs off earlier industry ads like those from Cenovus in 2011 that highlighted other products made from petroleum — from artificial limbs to ultrasounds — but goes further by implying society can keep consuming oil and gas, and other products made from fossil fuels, as long as the resulting carbon is captured or reused.

This does represent a departure from earlier industry efforts to deny the existence of human-caused climate change altogether. The campaign joins a larger push to paint the industry in a different climate light and relieve the guilt and anxiety that many feel while trying to navigate a changing world, according to Gunster.

“[Industry] has been trying for a while now, especially certain parts of the industry, the bigger players, to integrate themselves into how we as a country, how we as a world, address climate change,” Gunster said.

“[Companies are] trying to position themselves as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem,” he said.

For Stewart of Greenpeace, that cuts to the heart of the issue. 

“Their problem is performance, not PR,” he said.

Emissions from the oilsands have increased 400 per cent since 1990

The emissions performance of the oilsands, long a source of concern for those interested in reducing Canada’s climate impact, is of increasing importance for producers and their long-term financial viability. 

In its recent world energy outlook, the International Energy Agency pointed to the real possibility of declining oil and gas demand, particularly for high cost, high emissions resources like the oilsands in Canada. 

The performance is also increasingly under the watchful eye of the federal government, with its pledges of net-zero emissions in Canada by 2050 and its recent announcement at the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow, COP26, that it would put a cap on emissions from the oil and gas sector. 

It’s all part of the reason that companies have been working to reduce their emissions intensity — the amount of carbon produced for each barrel of oil — even while ramping up production. 

Together these companies account for the vast majority of the 83 megatonnes released by the oilsands in 2019 from production alone. That’s equivalent to the yearly energy use of almost 37 million homes. The oilsands make up 11 per cent of Canada’s overall emissions — and they’re increasing.

Emissions from the oilsands have climbed from 15 megatonnes in 1990, an increase of over 400 per cent. 

Adding the emissions associated with refining the bitumen in other countries and combustion would increase that number significantly. 

If all goes well with carbon capture utilization and storage, coupled with the possible use of small nuclear reactors and the emergence of new technologies, the Pathways Alliance projects it could eliminate 68 megatonnes of emissions per year by 2050.

Oilsands advertising has an ‘ideological function’

Stewart said he thinks this campaign is part of the coming negotiations with industry stakeholders who want to avoid costly regulations while lobbying for subsidies. 

The Pathways Alliance did not make anyone available for an interview on the campaign and did not respond to questions about the viability of the technologies it promotes, but it did send a written statement. 

“Pathways is focused on our goal of net-zero emissions from oilsands operations by 2050 to help Canada meet its climate goals, including its Paris Agreement commitments and 2050 net-zero aspiration,” spokesperson Alain Moore wrote in an email. 

“We know Canadians want to learn more about our plan to meet this ambitious goal. We’re building on our current communications to help share that information. However, nothing has been finalized at this time.”

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals pledged during the election campaign to cap emissions from oil and gas and reiterated that commitment at the recent COP26 meeting. Photo: Justin Trudeau / Flickr

Gunster, from Simon Fraser, said the campaign falls squarely into the political realm as a response to the mounting pressure from governments and citizens increasingly concerned about the direct impacts of climate change. 

Canadians don’t buy products from oil companies directly, he said, noting there’s no oil section aisle where you choose between Cenovus and Suncor like you do Coke and Pepsi.

“Their advertising … has a kind of ideological function, it has a political function, which is to try and advance a vision of the world, the problems of the world and how to fix the problems,” Gunster said. 

Oil pitched as ‘guilt free’: marketing professor

These kinds of campaigns can have an impact. 

Analysis of the previous oilsands campaign launched by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers over a decade ago and released through access to information requests in 2012, showed that effort resulted in improved impressions of the oilsands and reduced concerns about their environmental impact.

“The large majority of Conservative and the majority of Liberal supporters say the campaign makes them more inclined to believe that there is an effort to limit environmental impacts, a more responsive industry and that oilsands can be developed in a responsible way,” reads the 2011 analysis conducted by public opinion and market research firm Harris Decima. “NDP supporters are also positively impacted by the campaign, but at a lower rate.”

Rishad Habib is a professor of marketing at what is now known as X University in Toronto. In an interview, she said the campaign appears to be aimed at those who aren’t heavily involved in sustainability or the oil and gas industry and won’t be swayed by facts and statistics on what the industry hopes to accomplish. 

“Part of it seems to be like, ‘oh, here’s a guilt-free option, you don’t have to feel guilty about using it anymore. Because it’s energy, it’s beautifully designed.’ So you can use oil and still feel good about yourself,” she said after being shown the pitch video. 

That appeal to emotions in the Pa thways campaign can be powerful, and political, but it can also backfire, Habib said — particularly as the effects of climate change, like the wildfires in B.C. this year, start having a big impact in Canada.

Alberta’s oilsands face strong headwinds from alternatives

For Chris Bataille, an associate researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, the move to limit carbon pollution from the oilsands is part of a conversation dating back decades that should have been acted on much sooner. 

“My frustration is that we could have been doing this [in] 2006, 2007, 2008 and could have rode that into the high oil price through 2014, which then collapsed,” he said, noting the additional costs involved in trying to eliminate emissions and the price slump of recent years.

“But they didn’t do any of it. So there’s just this real lack of intention there.”

Bataille added that it is questionable whether the oilsands producers, whose product is piped to the U.S. to be refined into various petroleum products, can withstand the shift to electric and hydrogen vehicles. 

That said, Bataille also argued Alberta is one of the best jurisdictions in the world for being able to effectively store carbon emissions underground, as long as companies pay for the infrastructure themselves.

The campaign, however, doesn’t get bogged down in those details. 

“All across our country, beauty surrounds us, wherever we are, it’s there,” intones the Pathways Alliance video. 

“We need beauty in our lives, but we also need energy.”

Stewart said the campaign fails to capture the current mood, pointing to the visceral and real impacts of climate change that Canadians are experiencing — including B.C.’s devastating wildfires. 

“If the companies are serious about net zero, then that means changing their business model so they’re no longer selling oil and gas,” he said. 

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