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Oilsands group removes web content ahead of greenwashing law

Bill C-59 will require claims about environmental and climate change impacts to be backed up by evidence.
A Pathways Alliance ad on a bus in Vancouver

Pathways Alliance, a consortium on Canada's six largest oilsands producers, has removed content from its website and social media accounts ahead of changes to the Competition Act which will require companies to provide evidence to support their environmental claims.

"As part of late changes to the omnibus Bill C-59, imminent amendments to the Competition Act will create 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," reads a statement on the Pathways Alliance website.

Bill C-59 is currently before the senate and is expected to soon become law. The bill would amend existing truth-in-advertising legislation to include claims related to a product's "benefits for protecting the environment or mitigating the environmental and ecological effects of climate change" that aren't backed by evidence.

The new "greenwashing" provisions initially covered product-specific environmental claims, and amendments were made to include broad environmental representations like net-zero targets.

As of June 19, the Pathways Alliance homepage included messages about how Canada's oilsands producers "are on the path to reach net-zero emissions from operations" and plans to focus on carbon capture and storage.

If companies are found to have made misleading or false environmental claims, they could be required to release a public notice about the deceptive nature of their advertisements, or face monetary penalties. 

MC Bouchard, oil and gas program director at the Pembina Institute, said in a news release that the group's research has identified significant gaps between Pathways Alliance members decarbonization promises and actions, and that the consortium has yet to make investments "that would meaningfully reduce their emissions in line with their previously stated 2030 and 2050 targets — despite the existence of significant public subsidies to support such investments."

"The oilsands is still Canada’s highest emitting industry, and those emissions continue to grow. The actions Pathways and its member companies have taken today appears to be a withdrawal of their commitments to reduce emissions and reach net-zero by 2050."

The government of Alberta was quick to issue a statement Thursday, saying the bill was intended to "intimidate boards and shareholders, silence debate" about Canada's energy sector and that the government is exploring "use of every legal option, including a constitutional challenge or the use of the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act."

Bill C-59 will require purported environmental benefits have "adequate and proper substantiation in accordance with internationally recognized methodology," and put the burden of proof on the companies or persons making the claims. It will also allow private parties to bring claims before the Competition Tribunal, whereas currently only Canada's competition bureau enforces misleading advertising.

There are a number of cases before the competition bureau related to false or misleading "greenwashing," including the Pathways Alliance's "Let's Clear the Air Campaign."

Pathways Alliance represents Canadian Natural Resources (CNRL), Cenovus Energy, Imperial Oil, MEG Energy, Suncor Energy and ConocoPhillips. 

Imperial Oil also updated the news section of its website Thursday in response to Bill C-59: "Imperial fully disclaims any liability for the use of such information, and undertakes no obligation to update such information except as required by applicable law."

CNRL has released an explanatory note saying their operational commitments haven't changed, "only the way in which we are publicly communicating these aspects of our business."

ConocoPhillips website now provides a disclaimer that all information "is provided for historical information purposes only and does not constitute an active or current representation of ConocoPhillips Canada. ConocoPhillips Canada fully disclaims any liability for the use of such information for any purpose."

As of this writing, Cenovus Energy, MEG Energy, and Suncor Energy have not issued any content disclaimer or statement about Bill C-59.

Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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