When one of Canada’s most influential oil lobby groups set out to cleanse its image of an industry proven to drive global heating, it designed a splashy advertising offensive to change public perception.
In the ads, the six oilsands majors that make up the Pathways Alliance — Suncor Energy, Imperial Oil, Cenovus Energy, ConocoPhillips, Canadian Natural Resources and MEG Energy — present themselves as on a mission to play their part in an era of decarbonization.
To spread the word, the alliance grabbed some premiere advertising spots. “Let’s clear the air” commercials played during the FIFA World Cup, Australian Open, 2023 Super Bowl and even on airplanes before takeoff, as anyone flying on Air Canada recently can attest. Those ads show oil and gas workers bathed in soft light, walking to the sound of optimistic music with a forest behind them, as a narrator readily admits oil production creates carbon emissions, and it’s time to do something about it.
The Pathways Alliance was officially launched in June 2021 with the goal of reaching net-zero emissions in members’ operations by 2050. That net-zero goal refers exclusively to the fraction of emissions associated with extracting fossil fuels. It doesn’t factor in the vast majority of emissions that occur when the fuel is burned. Nonetheless, to pull off this net-zero goal, the Pathways Alliance is proposing a multibillion-dollar carbon capture, utilization and storage project to trap carbon dioxide emissions from its operations and pipe them through a massive trunkline to a storage hub.
The alliance has a goal to cut 22 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030, representing roughly 30 per cent of the sector’s acknowledged emissions, and says this plan could contribute to about half of that 22 million tonne target. (Recent research suggests the industry is underreporting its emissions, which could be 31 million tonnes higher than stated.) But that emission reduction estimate is based on the technology performing far better than it ever has, and if production is allowed to grow simultaneously, the planet-scorching greenhouse gas emissions reaching the atmosphere could continue to grow, undermining any emission reductions the alliance achieves per barrel of oil.
The Pathways Alliance’s splashy advertising push has eclipsed that of the country’s other major fossil lobby group: the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). While the Pathways Alliance has spent significantly on a public relations campaign, CAPP’s profile is waning and its spending on Facebook and Instagram ads is dramatically lower than its Pathways counterparts.
It is not known how much the Pathways Alliance has spent on the “Let's clear the air” campaign, but it has spent over $500,000 on Facebook advertising alone, and is currently under investigation from Competition Bureau Canada for allegedly misleading the public about its net-zero claims. In the past 90 days or so, the Pathways Alliance has spent approximately $120,000 on advertisements on Facebook and Instagram, compared to about $20,000 CAPP has spent over that same period.
While claiming to be working toward net zero, the oil companies are at the same time planning to increase production and resisting federal policies to curb emissions. By fighting climate action while claiming to be committed to net-zero emissions, the alliance members are violating the greenwashing guidelines set out by the United Nations Net-Zero Expert Group chaired by former environment and climate change minister Catherine McKenna.
“Pathways is the greenwashed alternative that has more legitimacy in the public eye... The critics who have been lambasting CAPP’s actions I think see through what Pathways is up to, but the general Canadian population doesn't.” — @JKimmittRowe
“It doesn't matter what you say, it doesn't matter what you advertise, you need to be measured on what is required,” McKenna told Canada’s National Observer. To credibly claim to be on a path to net zero, “your absolute emissions need to go down.”
Both CAPP and the Pathways Alliance did not return a request for comment.
Monster off the leash
As the oil majors’ support for CAPP wanes, the once-powerful lobby group appears to have abandoned its Energy Citizens campaign. The initiative presented itself as a “grassroots” advocacy organization for oil and gas, and relied on social media advertising to spread its message. It has not run an advertisement on Facebook or Instagram since September, following years of advertising and at least $215,000 spent.
CAPP’s Energy Citizens campaign was based on the American Petroleum Institute's Energy Citizen campaign, launched in the Obama years to fight climate change legislation. CAPP brought the concept to Canada in 2014, explained Greenpeace Canada senior energy strategist Keith Stewart.
Its goal was to frame Canadian oil and gas as “ethical” to the general public, Stewart said. CAPP, alongside other industry front group Canada Action, helped organize the United We Roll convoy that drove across Canada to Ottawa in early 2019 to “bring the message of ‘We love Canadian oil and gas’ to Parliament Hill,” he said.
But Stewart said he believed the Energy Citizens campaign ultimately left a bad taste in the mouths of the public. The petro-nationalism egged on by CAPP was then taken over by the Yellow Vest movement in 2018, he said.
The Yellow Vest Canada Facebook page, where much of the movement’s organizing happened, described the group’s existence “to protest the CARBON TAX and the Treason of our country’s politicians who have the audacity to sell out OUR country’s sovereignty over to the Globalist UN and their Tyrannical policies. [sic]”
The oil companies could sense the public relations nightmare unfolding and eventually backed out, Stewart said. “The yellow vesters went on, and they had Trudeau being hung in effigy, and the UN World Economic Forum stuff and a bunch of those yellow vesters went on to be core organizers for the trucker convoy,” he said.
It was “Frankenstein”-like, he said. “They built the monster and then couldn't control it.”
By trying to tap into an anger and fear that “Trudeau wants to take away oil and gas,” the effort ultimately got tied up in “crazy stuff” like climate action being “an attempt to impose socialism, and the pandemic lockdowns were the dry run,” Stewart said.
“I think the oil companies were like, ‘OK, we wanted a monster but we wanted it on a leash.’”
‘The greenwashed alternative’
The result, as Canada’s National Observer found, has been a stunning loss of influence for CAPP on Parliament Hill. The oil majors are now turning to the Pathways Alliance to advocate for federal subsidies. This has many close industry watchers convinced the drop in CAPP’s advertising is more evidence of a quiet feud brewing in the country’s fossil fuel sector over the best way to continue extracting in an era of decarbonization.
University of Victoria associate professor James Rowe said given the work of climate advocates over the past decade to highlight CAPP’s corrosive influence on climate action, the association’s image has likely been tarnished.
“Pathways is the greenwashed alternative that has more legitimacy in the public eye,” he said. “The critics who have been lambasting CAPP’s actions I think see through what Pathways is up to, but the general Canadian population doesn't.”
People who are aware that climate change is getting worse and hear “association of petroleum producers” are quick to conclude CAPP is an organization interested in slowing climate action, he said.
“Pathways Alliance,” on the other hand, “sounds like this co-operative initiative, which in some respects is what Canadians have wanted all along,” Rowe said. Canadians are waiting for these companies to do the right thing and make significant investments in reducing emissions and transitioning to renewables. It’s not happening, Rowe is quick to add. “But the Pathways Alliance gives the impression that maybe it is.”