Canada's competition watchdog opens inquiry into Pathways Alliance ads over greenwashing allegations
The Competition Bureau is officially investigating an ad campaign that Greenpeace Canada argues is “false and misleading” because it suggests Canada's six biggest oilsands companies are reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping Canada achieve its climate targets.
The Pathways Alliance’s six members — Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil subsidiary Imperial, MEG Energy and Suncor — are responsible for 95 per cent of Canada’s oilsands production. A complaint filed in March by Greenpeace Canada took aim at the group’s “Let’s clear the air” marketing campaign, which presents its members as “making clear strides toward net zero” to help Canada “achieve a sustainable future.”
The Pathways Alliance’s plan to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 doesn’t count the emissions produced when its fossil fuel products are actually burned, which is where more than 80 per cent of fossil fuel emissions come from, the complaint points out. The Competition Bureau’s guide states that an organization’s environmental claims must be subject to a consideration of the life cycle of a product, and excluding 80 per cent of the emissions from the products Pathways members produce and profit from is not in line with that, the complaint argues.
Pathways Alliance did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.
“The Pathways ad campaign has been widespread across the country, popping up in high-profile placements such as Super Bowl ads, a billboard at BC Place in Vancouver and fully painted streetcars in Toronto,” Greenpeace Canada’s senior researcher and writer Nola Poirier said in a news release Thursday. The advertisements also appeared on local radio stations and in some of Canada’s largest media outlets.
“Net-zero greenwashing is pervasive, and there is a distinct need for accountability in advertising that incorporates the entire life cycle of fossil fuels from their production to their combustion,” said Poirier.
The bureau’s letter to Greenpeace said it will seek to “determine the facts relating to allegations that the Pathways Alliance has contravened the [Competition] Act by making false or misleading environmental representations.” The act contains a combination of civil and criminal laws to try to prevent anti-competitive practices in the marketplace — for example, false advertising or bread price-fixing — but environmental and health groups want to see it strengthened to better deal with greenwashing.
If the Competition Bureau’s investigation finds Pathways Alliance members have made “materially false and misleading representations to the Canadian public,” Greenpeace Canada requests the six companies pay a penalty of three per cent of their gross worldwide profits into the federal government’s Environmental Damages Fund and that that money be used to clean up oilsands pollution. According to Greenpeace, the penalty would amount to over $8.5 billion. The complainant would also want to see a public retraction and removal of “all representations about reducing emissions (achieving net zero), cleaning the air and combating climate change.”
Greenpeace says it is anti-competitive for the Pathways Alliance to represent itself as a climate leader, despite its members' plans to expand production, because this perception undermines clean energy producers trying to break into the market and compete with oilsands products.
While ads about the oilsands’ role in a net-zero future run, many Pathways Alliance members have opposed emission regulations and are expanding production. The latter contravenes greenwashing guidelines laid out by a UN Net-Zero Expert Group that say non-state actors can’t claim to be net zero while building or investing in new fossil fuel supply.
Formed from three existing industry groups last summer, the Pathways Alliance’s stated focus is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands production by 22 million tonnes annually by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. These goals hinge on the group's proposed carbon storage project, which it says will require an estimated $16.5 billion of investment by the end of the decade.
Because there’s no market for storing captured CO2 — only for using it to extract more oil — the project would “generate little or no return on investment” for shareholders, and “it would be impossible to remain globally competitive without government financial and policy support,” the Pathways website reads. Other than an announcement in late 2022 dedicating $10 million to an engineering study to create detailed plans for a 400-kilometre CO2 transportation line, the member companies have not announced other spending for emissions-reduction projects, according to a Pembina Institute analysis from March.
The complaint filed to the Competition Bureau also raised questions about whether the necessary carbon capture technology will be ready on time and perform well enough to meet the alliance's goals.
— With files from John Woodside
Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer