Greenwashing the Tar Sands, Part 2: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Last week, I wrote a short history of the greenwashing campaign being waged by tar sands promoters, including (and especially) the Canadian and Alberta governments. It’s clear that as the battle over the future of tar sands development has intensified, so has the greenwashing necessary to promote it in the age of climate change and increasing environmental literacy. The more people know about the dangerous costs and risks associated with tar sands development, the more time, effort and money its promoters must invest in the alchemy of disingenuous propaganda.

The frustrating part for Canadians concerned with this egregious abuse and misuse of language is that there doesn’t appear to be any recourse. Tar sands supporters seem to disseminate their little black lies with impunity, and there is no way, in a democracy where free speech is sacrosanct, to stop the flood of tar sands bullshit sullying the airwaves.

And yet, I may have stumbled on at least one way to hold those who choose to misrepresent the true nature of the environmental problems associated with turning Alberta’s bitumen deposits into tar sands crude to well-accepted standards of decency and honesty.


In 2008, the federal government’s Competition Bureau, in partnership with the Canadian Standards Association, published Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers. Ostensibly, the guide was prepared to help businesses and advertisers (and presumably public relations gurus as well) make self-declared environmental claims in a more honest and informative manner, and to avoid using “misleading or deceptive claims relating to an implied or expressed environmental benefit.”

The guide defines “self-declared environmental claims” as “those claims that are made by manufacturers, importers, distributors, or any person who promotes a product/service or business interest who is likely to benefit from the product’s environmental claims.” It doesn’t explicitly include politicians in this list, but given that tar sands oil is a “product” that is likely to benefit federal and provincial politicians as well as the corporations that produce and transport it, I see no reason not to hold politicians to the same standards as the oil companies for whom they shill.

The federal government’s Competition Bureau, moreover, considers these guidelines, published five years ago now, to reflect “best practices”. While conceding that businesses are free to adopt any business practices they choose, the claims they make cannot be “false or misleading.” If the recommendations included in Environmental Claims are followed, the guide goes on, “it is unlikely that environmental claims used in the promotion of a product or service or business interest would raise concerns under the statutes administered by the Competition Bureau,” which includes the Competition Act.

According to the guide, the types of “anti-competitive activities” frowned on by the Competition Bureau include, among other things, “materially false and misleading representations [that] are made knowingly or recklessly to the public” and “deceptive marketing practices.” Indeed, Section 2.2.2 of the Competition Act “prohibits knowingly or recklessly making, or permitting the making, of a representation to the public, in any form whatever, that is false or misleading in a material respect.”

Referencing CAN/CSA-ISO 14021, which details the appropriate use of environmental terms, the guide specifically states that self-declared environmental claims shall be “accurate and not misleading”, “substantiated and verified”, and “unlikely to result in misinterpretation”. In addition, they shall not “suggest an environmental improvement that does not exist”, nor shall they “exaggerate the environmental aspect of the product to which the claim relates”. Environmental claims shall not be made “if, despite the claim being literally true, it is likely to be misinterpreted by purchasers” or is “misleading through the omission of relevant facts.”

How well do Canada’s political and commercial tar sands promoters follow the federal government’s guidelines on the appropriate use of environmental claims? Not particularly well, as it turns out.

Tar sands development and/or oil has variously been described as a “clean” and “sustainable”  form of energy by various Canadian politicians too numerous to mention. Alberta politicians even talk about bitumen development as part of its “Clean Energy Story” (whatever that means), where they claim Alberta they are “doing our part to move the world towards a clean energy future.” Canada’s outspoken Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver went so far recently as to call them “green.”

It’s hard to imagine that any hydrocarbon, never mind tar sands bitumen, could be reasonably understood to be a “clean” source of energy.

Although the guide doesn’t mention the word “clean” specifically, Section 5.6 specifies that “it is not sufficient to make vague claims of environmental improvement or implying environmental improvement.” If we’re only talking greenhouse gas emissions, energy generated from hydro, nuclear and wind are generally considered the least intensive, and natural gas is the cleanest hydrocarbon (though its ten times worse than hydro). Tar sands oil, on the other hand, is about as dirty as it gets, and is significantly dirtier than conventional crude. It is also getting dirtier as more bitumen is extracted using in situ methods. Bitumen may be cleaner than coal, but calling it “clean” is kind of like calling Hitler humane because he didn’t kill as many people as Stalin.

Tar sands development also spews tonnes (literally) of other pollutants into the region’s land, water and wildlife (and perhaps even people). Some of the pollutants – napthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heavy metals – are toxic at low levels, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that tar sands mines, upgraders and tailings ponds are spewing the stuff into the air and water faster than anyone’s ready to admit. David Schindler recently found similarities between fish deformities found downstream from Alberta's tar sands and those observed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and Florida's Deepwater Horizon disaster.

How about “sustainable”? Not so much. According to the guide, “the concepts involved in sustainability are highly complex and still under study. At this time there are no definitive methods for measuring sustainability or confirming its accomplishment. Therefore, no claim of achieving sustainability shall be made.” (Emphasis added)

Sometimes, the guide admits, “claims that refer to specific, registered management systems are acceptable provided that they can be verified.” Given that neither Canada nor Alberta has an adequate monitoring system in place or a policy regime that actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, any claim of “sustainability” is pure hogwash. This probably should apply to Alberta’s Orwellian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and Canada’s ridiculously ambiguous Federal Sustainable Development Act, neither of which have moved us a millimetre toward so-called “sustainable” development.

The guide specifically identifies the term “green,” which Minister Oliver abused to describe his beloved tar sands oil, as an example of the “vague claims of environmental improvement” that should never be made. Any such claim, the guide goes on, “must detail the environmental benefit in such a way that it can be verified.” It’s difficult to imagine how Minister Oliver could verify that tar sands oil is in any way “green,” but I thought I’d check his website to see what I could find.

Natural Resources Canada’s website used to include a section on the tar sands, but it’s not there anymore. I did learn that the federal government’s Responsible Resource Development Program “will strengthen Canada’s world-class environmental standards.” Canada’s Environment Minister, Peter Kent, made similar claims in a speech he gave about Canada’s “green economy” at the European Union–Canada Going Green Conference in Montreal in March.

Well, the claim about Canada’s “world-class” environmental performance is one that has been verified, and it turns out to be totally and utterly false. Canada has always had some of the worst environmental legislation in the developed world, and it has been weakened further by the Harper government in recent years. And everyone (except Minister Oliver, apparently) knows that Canada is one of the worst emitters (on a per capita basis) of climate-warming greenhouse gases in the developed world.

I could go on and on, but it’s abundantly clear that Canadian politicians have ignored the guidelines the federal government has set out for businesses, advertisers and “any person who promotes a product/service or business interest who is likely to benefit from the product’s environmental claims.” I’m no lawyer, but it would seem to me that the Competition Bureau and the Canadian Standards Association might want to have a look at the “materially false and misleading representations” Canadian politicians are “knowingly and recklessly” making in Canada, Europe and the United States.

Because if politicians can get away with rampant greenwashing, how are they going to hold businesses accountable for doing it?

Part III of this series will explore whether the oil industry does a better job following the federal government’s Environmental Claims Guidelines for Industry and Advertising than Canadian politicians.

Image Credit: TerraChoice The Sins of Greenwashing report.

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