Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Facing New ‘Greenwashing’ Law, an Oil Industry Website Goes Dark

When Parliament passed a law last month banning misleading or false environmental claims in advertising, or “greenwashing,” the reaction from an alliance of six oil sands companies was swift. The website for their Pathways Alliance, pushing a carbon capture and storage plan for oil sands emissions, more or less vanished. Most of the companies scrubbed their own websites and social media pages of everything related to environmental issues.

Once vigorously promoted by the oil industry, the Pathways Alliance website offered on Friday only a note explaining that its online presence was gone because the new law created “significant uncertainty for Canadian companies that want to communicate publicly about the work they are doing to improve their environmental performance, including to address climate change.”

But the statement also insisted that the site was not an example of greenwashing.

“This is a direct consequence of the new legislation and is not related to our belief in the truth and accuracy of our environmental communications,” the group said.

Environmentalists, who have long characterized Pathways as a prime example of greenwashing, were having none of that argument.

“Scrubbing their websites is such a telling indication of their greenwashing activity and shows that they have been making false promises about the impact of their emissions reduction plans,” Emilia Belliveau, the energy transition program manager at Environmental Defence, told me.

The Pathways project would build pipelines to take carbon removed at oil sands sites with new technology to Cold Lake, Alberta, and bury it deep underground, at an estimated cost of 16 billion Canadian dollars. Members of the alliance want the federal government to subsidize two-thirds of that cost, arguing that oil sands could otherwise disappear.

“Consumers and citizens may be concerned about the level of subsidies for carbon capture,” Mark Cameron, a vice president at Pathways, told a Senate committee in May. “If we lost 250,000 jobs, 20 billion dollars in revenue and 3 percent of our G.D.P., I think they’d be even more upset.”

I asked Pathways if a representative would discuss the website shutdown and the alliance’s concerns about the new law. No one responded.

They say that the companies are concerned that the law “opens the door for frivolous litigation, particularly by private entities,” and that “this represents a serious threat to freedom of communication.”

Audrey Milette, a spokeswoman for François-Philippe Champagne, the industry minister, dismissed the idea that energy companies would be bombarded by groundless legal actions. The Competition Bureau, the national advertising watchdog, will decide what actions go ahead and “will do so in a pragmatic manner,” Ms. Milette said in an email.

[From the Climate desk: ‘Climate-Controlled’ Sausage? Courts Crack Down on ‘Greenwashing’]

The government’s patience also appears to be wearing thin when it comes to the energy industry’s promises about eliminating carbon emissions.

“Oil and gas companies have the opportunity to redirect their record profits to decarbonize the sector, but we have not seen execution on these commitments,” Ms. Milette wrote. “We need this industry to make the investments to cut pollution that they’ve been promising Canadians.”

In their statements, the oil companies call for guidelines from the Competition Bureau that go beyond what it has already published about greenwashing. The agency announced this week that it would speed up the creation of additional guidelines and would hold consultations about them over the summer.

When Mr. Cameron appeared at the Senate committee, he was pressed about the veracity of the Pathways Alliance’s claims, particularly around carbon capture technology. While acknowledging that some projects had failed, he pointed to a relatively small project in Edmonton as a viable example.

“Yes, you could point to projects in other parts of the world that haven’t worked, but they have different geology from what we have in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan,” he told the senators. “They have the best carbon capture geology in North America, if not the world.”

Before it shut down its site, Pathways included a 606-word “cautionary statement” under its news releases that concluded: “Actual results may differ materially from those expressed or implied by its forward-looking statements and readers are cautioned not to place undue reliance on them.”

Ms. Belliveau, the environmentalist, does not share the energy industry’s optimism about carbon capture. She added that the need for further guidance from the Competition Bureau seemed unnecessary.

“It is very simple: If you’re going to be making environmental claims, you need to be able to demonstrate that they’re true,” she said. “This applies across the board to anybody making environmental claims. And the only group that’s really freaking out about this is the oil industry.”

  • My colleague Norimitsu Onishi traveled to Haida Gwaii in British Columbia after the province passed legislation that will hand over the provincial government’s authority over the land and resources to the Council of the Haida Nation, the Haida people’s government. Amber Bracken, a photographer who regularly contributes to The Times, provided some stunning photos of one of Canada’s most beautiful spots.

  • Shania Twain is now officially a “legend” of the Glastonbury Festival in England.

  • Darrien Thomas, a dietary manager at a retirement home in Bowmanville, Ontario, who is the top competitive eater in Canada, shares a musical tip for downing hot dogs.

  • A Canadian mining company is enmeshed in an election at a United Nations-affiliated organization that could determine whether the Pacific Ocean floor will soon be mined for metals used in electric vehicles.

  • Chloe Hurst discussed her “goth garden” in Ottawa with Lia Picard of the Styles section.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for two decades. Follow him on Bluesky at @ianausten.bsky.social

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