A complaint has been filed against the Pathways Alliance, urging Competition Bureau Canada to investigate the group’s claim it is committed to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
The complaint filed Thursday by Greenpeace Canada takes specific aim at Pathways Alliance’s “Let’s clear the air” campaign launched in August. The Pathways group is composed of the country’s six largest oilsands companies, responsible for 95 per cent of oilsands production and just over 60 per cent of Canada’s total oil production. They are Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil subsidiary Imperial, MEG Energy and Suncor.
Since August, Pathways Alliance has placed splashy advertisements across social media, billboards, at high-profile sporting events like the FIFA World Cup and the Super Bowl, and in some of Canada’s largest media outlets like the Toronto Star and CBC, claiming to be “on a path to net zero.”
“The Pathways Alliance of major oilsands companies [fills] the airwaves with net-zero claims but instead, their emissions are going up, they're investing a fraction of their profits in clean solutions and are lobbying against climate action,” former climate minister Catherine McKenna, who now chairs the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Expert Group on Net-Zero Commitments of Non-State Entities, said in a statement. “Time to draw a red line around greenwashing.”
The complaint says the advertisements are aimed at “creating the public and political support necessary to maintain their oilsands production,” and that Pathways Alliance is engaging in “anti-competitive” behaviour by “attempting to unfairly gain an advantage … over other Canadian oil producers and clean energy producers trying to compete with oil in the market.”
“If the alliance’s misrepresentations are accepted, it will position the alliance’s oil as more climate-friendly than that of other Canadian oil producers, even though the downstream emissions from all oil is the same and contributes the majority of the overall climate impact,” the complaint says. “It also risks undermining actual clean energies from being competitive in the market since they will be seen as unnecessary when we already have ‘climate-friendly’ oil.”
Greenpeace Canada is requesting Competition Bureau Canada investigate Pathways Alliance and, if the group’s advertising is found to be false and misleading, for the regulator to require the alliance to remove all advertisements, issue a public retraction and pay a fine of at least $10 million to “preferably Indigenous-led” organizations to clean up oilsands pollution.
Central to the complaint is that Pathways has failed to incorporate the full life cycle of fossil fuel emissions when it claims it can achieve net zero, which falsely gives the impression it can actually achieve that goal. Specifically, the complaint says the Pathways Alliance plan to reach net-zero emissions doesn’t take into account the emissions when fossil fuels are actually burned, which is where over 80 per cent of fossil fuel emissions come from.
Emissions fall into three buckets. Scope 1 refers to the greenhouse gases a company emits when producing its product, Scope 2 refers to emissions indirectly related to production, like purchased electricity generated from coal power, and Scope 3 refers to emissions when the product is used, like the pollution spewed from a tailpipe when a car burns gasoline.
“The Pathways Alliance of major oilsands companies [fills] the airwaves with net-zero claims but instead, their emissions are going up... Time to draw a red line around greenwashing," says @cathmckenna. #cdnpoli
The vast majority of emissions from the fossil fuel industry come when the product is burned, meaning Scope 3 emissions are the most critical from a global perspective. Scope 3 emissions are typically left out of the industry’s net-zero plans, representing a massive loophole.
“Pathways is only counting scopes 1 and 2, whereas the Competition Bureau’s guide states that environmental claims must be subject to a consideration of the life cycle of a product,” reads the complaint.
However, before the complaint was filed with the bureau, Pathways Alliance edited its website to acknowledge the net-zero claims refer to only Scope 1 and 2 emissions. As of March, the group now acknowledges it is only aiming at a fraction of the emissions.
Pathways Alliance did not return a request for comment asking why that change was made.
Greenpeace Canada legal counsel Priyanka Vittal told Canada’s National Observer the advertising campaign the climate advocacy organization is taking issue with isn’t limited to the claims made on the Pathways website.
Even with the clarification, “we don't think the general public is necessarily going to take that extra step to go visit their website, and then take the other extra step to look at Scope 1 and 2 emissions, and then take that extra other step to realize there's also Scope 3,” she said. “What the Competition Bureau has to consider here is what is the general impression of their advertising?”
By acknowledging the net-zero claims do not extend to Scope 3 emissions, Pathways Alliance is essentially confirming it is not taking fossil fuels’ full life cycle into account, Vittal said.
That appears to put the alliance in hot water because the Competition Bureau is clear that “the practice of making false or misleading environmental ads or claims is illegal,” and that to avoid making misleading claims, businesses must “take into consideration all relevant aspects of the product’s whole life cycle.”
Canadian law firm McMillan LLP said in November that the Competition Bureau has made tackling greenwashing “a high enforcement priority.” McMillan also said it was likely there will be more greenwashing investigations undertaken by the regulator because of that focus and because it’s a strategy being pushed by environmental advocates.