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Canada’s plans to crack down on greenwashing don’t go far enough, advocates say

A new report calls out the oil and gas industry’s misleading marketing tactics, from ‘cherry-picking the truth’ to ‘petro-science fiction’ and vague buzzwords

A new federal government proposal to crack down on corporate greenwashing in Canada doesn’t go far enough to stop the oil and gas industry from using misleading marketing tactics, two environmental advocacy groups have argued.

The government tabled amendments last week that, if passed, would require businesses that market products as protecting the environment or mitigating the effects of climate change, to be able to back up those statements with evidence. They also boost the Competition Bureau’s ability to investigate deceptive marketing practices.

The amendments are meant to tackle “misleading greenwashing that we’ve seen some companies engaging in,” Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters at an Ottawa press conference on Nov. 28.

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In a Dec. 7 statement, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and Greenpeace Canada say the amendments “lack clear prohibitions” against specific “deceptive practices” oil and gas companies engage in, “some of which have already been banned in Europe.”

The European Union will ban broad statements like “climate neutral” that companies can’t prove, as well as other claims surrounding carbon offsets and green labels, in new rules set to come into effect in 2026, the Financial Times reported.

But Champagne’s office says the federal competition law applies economy-wide and is not an environmental statute, so it would not contain prescriptive rules for the industry.

The new rules are meant to build on the Competition Bureau’s existing expertise, and “rebalance the burden of proof” when it comes to environmental claims, his office said.

Many houses in a suburban area covered in snow.
The Competition Bureau is investigating whether the Pathways Alliance, a group of companies operating in the oilsands near Fort McMurray, Alta., made false or misleading environmental statements. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Competition Bureau is investigating greenwashing complaints

Earlier this year the federal Competition Bureau began investigating the Pathways Alliance group of oilsands companies following a complaint over its advertising. The bureau also launched investigations last year into the Royal Bank of Canada and another probe into the Canadian Gas Association.

“As noted in the [Pathways Alliance] complaint, the current adoption of [carbon capture] technologies isn’t happening at the pace or scale needed to reduce emissions, and despite its net-zero claims, Pathways Alliance’s plan does not account for more than 80 per cent of their emissions, and still it does not add up to zero,” reads a report released by the two environmental groups.

“Canada needs drastic emissions reductions now, but the Pathways Alliance’s reliance on [carbon capture] capacities that simply don’t exist is just a way to punt its members’ emissions problem to the future while expanding oil and gas production and getting those same members billions in government handouts.”

The report also said the Canadian Gas Association’s “Fuelling Canada” advertising campaign presents natural gas as clean even though methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent form of carbon pollution.

“Fossil gas pollutes the water and air at every stage of its life-cycle, from extraction to processing to combustion, and gas stoves cause indoor air pollution posing a serious health risk for children’s respiratory health. This means gas can never be truthfully described as ‘clean,’ meaning free from pollution,” the report reads.

The Pathways Alliance told the Toronto Star it “strongly disagrees with the assertions in the Greenpeace complaint” associated with its investigation. A spokesperson for the alliance declined comment to The Narwhal on the government’s proposed greenwashing amendments or the report from the environmental groups.

Royal Bank of Canada has disagreed with the allegations in the complaint connected with its investigation, and told Reuters it believes it to be “unfounded.” A spokesperson for the bank declined comment to The Narwhal on the proposed amendments.

The Canadian Gas Association told CBC News it would co-operate with the investigation into its own practices and was confident in its position that natural gas “plays an important part in Canada’s energy mix.” A representative from the association did not immediately respond to questions from The Narwhal.

Many trees covered in snow from above.
Oil and gas companies engage in “cherry picking the truth,” environmental groups say, when they advertise clean energy initiatives while not disclosing their much larger investments in fossil fuels. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Report looks into oil and gas greenwashing strategies

In their report, “Greenwashing Big Oil & Gas: The Fossil Fuel Deception Playbook,” the two environmental groups lay out seven of what they call “Big Oil’s go-to greenwashing strategies.”

Number one is “cherry picking the truth,” when companies advertise clean energy initiatives while not disclosing that these represent a small fraction of their overall operations. A company might advertise several million dollars worth of renewable energy projects, for instance, while not mentioning the billions of dollars it spends drilling for oil or lobbying to weaken climate legislation.

Other examples the groups point to include when oil and gas companies use “dubious accounting” by purchasing carbon credits to offset emissions. An investigation by the Guardian and non-profit Corporate Accountability found the “vast majority” of projects used to offset emissions “appear to have fundamental failings.”

Another example is “petro-science fiction,” or when oil and gas companies rely on future technologies, like the deployment of carbon capture equipment that has not yet been proven at scale, to account for the majority of promised emissions reductions. These sort of campaigns can also be “used to secure billions in subsidies from governments for its dead-end technologies,” the report states.

All of these marketing techniques should be considered misleading by definition under the law, said ecological economist Leah Temper, the director of the physicians’ association’s “Fossil Fuel Ads Make Us Sick” campaign.

“What we would like is regulations or legislation that lists specific environmental claims that are prohibited because they are false and/or misleading in all circumstances,” Temper told The Narwhal.

The physicians’ association and Ecojustice have also said the government’s amendments should extend to statements from companies that don’t apply to specific products, like commitments to achieve net-zero emissions, and should require the tests to prove statements to be made public.

The report also calls out the industry’s practice of using “vague and generic terms like green, clean, efficient, sustainable, eco-friendly and natural” to market fossil fuel products or operations, and of “double dipping” by taking credit for ecologically minded actions the company would be required to do under law anyway.

Another practice of the industry is to advertise products that pollute the environment, like gas-guzzling vehicles, in natural settings like forests or alongside animal habitats, the report says. And a longstanding technique is to speak publicly about supporting the environment while lobbying privately against climate action.

“These pervasive industry tactics enable companies to sidestep accountability and perpetuate the illusion of responsibility by obscuring the truth about their products’ environmental and health impacts,” the environmental groups said in their joint statement.

trucks drive along dirt roads in a muddy area.
The Competition Bureau’s investigation into the Pathways Alliance and others could be lengthy, such as when the bureau closed a years-long investigation into disposable wipes after saying it wasn’t clear what flushable meant. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Public submissions ‘instrumental’ in shaping amendments, minister’s office says

Competition Bureau cases can sometimes take years. One example is the case of flushable wipes, when the bureau closed a years-long investigation last year into whether makers of disposable wipes were engaging in false advertising, after saying it wasn’t clear what flushable meant.

Temper said strengthening the law, as environmental groups are seeking, could help resolve more issues related to greenwashing.

Champagne’s office told The Narwhal it couldn’t comment on whether any of the greenwashing complaints currently before the Competition Bureau were stalled or difficult to proceed with under existing rules, or whether the proposed rules would make it easier for the bureau to proceed, as the bureau is an independent agency.

“The policy intent of requiring that those making environmental claims be able to substantiate them through testing is to rebalance the burden of proof more appropriately in such enforcement matters,” Champagne’s spokesperson Audrey Champoux told The Narwhal.

Public submissions, including from environmental associations such as the physicians’ association, were “instrumental in shaping the proposed legislative amendments” to the Competition Act, Champoux said.

“It is important to note that the Competition Act is a marketplace framework law of general application, not an environmental labelling statute. Because the Act is structured as a law enforcement statute, it does not contain prescriptive rules or codes for any particular industry or form of behaviour,” the spokesperson added.

“The new obligation with respect to environmental claims builds on the Competition Bureau’s existing expertise in enforcing the law, and will apply economy-wide.”

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The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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