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‘Detached from reality’: researchers say Pathways Alliance misleading public with greenwashing

Oilsands companies omitted ‘important information’ about the industry’s carbon pollution in a massive marketing campaign, researchers say in a new paper published in a peer-reviewed journal

Canada’s largest oilsands companies are “misleading” the public about their industry’s environmental impact, according to new peer-reviewed research.

A new paper published in the journal Energy Research and Social Science has found the Pathways Alliance of oilsands companies engaged in multiple instances of “greenwashing” in their promotional efforts, obscuring the true nature of the oil and gas sector’s carbon pollution and the true costs required to eliminate it.

“”Their messaging omits important information, uses misleading framing and comparisons, and fails to meet standards expected of a credible net-zero plan,” the study said.

“It is possible that their net zero plan is a strategy for allowing increased emissions in the near term,” it added.

The Pathways Alliance is a group of six oil and gas companies representing the bulk of oilsands production. The group plans to build a large carbon capture and storage network to capture emissions from oilsands facilities and send them down a pipeline to an underground storage area. They have campaigned for extensive government financial and regulatory support to achieve this plan.

Slashing the sector’s carbon pollution is important as emissions from the oilsands have grown by 460 per cent since 1990, threatening to undermine Canada’s climate goals. But the alliance has faced criticism in the past over a lack of details in their public messaging, and its members have also lobbied to delay and weaken government efforts to restrict oil and gas sector emissions.

In the paper, titled “Greenwashing, net-zero and the oil sands in Canada: The case of Pathways Alliance,” researchers described these efforts as a “troubling concentration of corporate power for the purposes of political and public influence.”

Emissions coming from oilsands operations in Fort McMurray, Alta.
Researchers say the Pathways Alliance has not publicly made the full cost of its plan clear, or how much public funding is necessary to complete it. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

To conduct the study, they looked at English text and documents, images and links on alliance-controlled websites between June 2021 and June 2023, as well as news articles, press releases, podcasts and corporate and financial documents from each of the six members. They also obtained information from filing access to information requests.

The alliance’s advertising campaign is currently being investigated by the federal competition bureau over separate allegations of greenwashing made in a complaint by Greenpeace Canada. The alliance told the Toronto Star it “strongly disagrees with the assertions in the Greenpeace complaint.”

The research was conducted by Melissa Aronczyk, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University, Patrick McCurdy, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa, and Chris Russill, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. All three are affiliated with Carleton University’s Re:Climate centre on climate communications.

Pathways Alliance messaging shows ‘repeated failure to account publicly for all emissions’: report

The researchers found the alliance did not report information on its members’ pollution, and its plan to cut emissions is missing data that could show the baseline pollution levels the plan would be tackling.

“The most consistent indicator of greenwashing is Pathways’ repeated failure to account publicly for all emissions,” they wrote.

Emissions from the burning of petroleum products made from the oil companies’ crude oil, which is where the vast majority of fossil fuel emissions come from, is not accounted for, they added.

Instead of informing Canadians about their environmental performance, the oilsands companies are engaging in “misdirection” that is “detached from the reality” of the impacts their operations are having on the global climate, the researchers wrote.

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“In most cases, the emissions and harms from the burning of their product are simply unaddressed,” they wrote. “Pathways often fails to acknowledge its net-zero plan covers only a small percentage of oil sands emissions or that these emissions might have increased since the launch of their net-zero plan.”

The study also found the Pathways Alliance has not publicly made the full cost of its plan clear, or how much public funding is necessary to complete it.

They said in most cases, oil companies have “not actually committed to spending this money or acknowledged that most of what they propose to spend is government money.”

“The plan’s credibility appears to rest upon financing and regulatory assumptions without addressing why government support in the tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars are required to retain a business model that is producing substantial climate impacts,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers also questioned the alliance’s promotion of $10 billion in clean technology investments made by its member companies between 2012 and 2021, some of which it said has helped reduce per-barrel emissions.

“This technique of aggregating projects across the sector makes verification difficult and is characteristic of greenwashing,” the authors wrote.

Energy Research and Social Science is an international journal published by Dutch academic publishing company Elsevier, which also owns The Lancet medical journal. It has a United Kingdom-based editor-in-chief, and senior editors based in the UK, the United States and Canada.

The journal welcomes contributions that “support and advance the UN’s sustainable development goals,” in particular access to affordable and clean energy, and urgent action on climate change.

Elsevier says it believes in a “cleaner, fairer, and more connected world” and is “promoting research for a just transition.” It says it’s committed to publishing “high quality, impactful research that supports clean, secure, and affordable energy for all.”

The Pathways Alliance did not respond to questions about this study from The Narwhal before publication time.

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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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