For the past few weeks, buses in Canada's third-largest city have greeted passengers with massive advertisements pushing misleading information about the climate impacts of the country's natural gas industry.

The ads have popped up on Vancouver buses, occupying nearly every inch of free space on the vehicles' side. They claim natural gas "will reduce emissions," despite widespread evidence the fossil fuel industry is a major source of planet-warming methane and must be shut down to prevent runaway climate change. They were paid for by Canada Action, a lobby group that promotes Canada's oil and gas sector.

"It's total greenwashing," said Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) president and Vancouver-area Dr. Melissa Lem. "There are all kinds of reasons why natural gas is not clean, is not affordable and does not reduce emissions."

Researchers have found that a mere 0.2 per cent of leakage in the natural gas supply chain, as it moves the fuel from wellhead to consumers, releases enough methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to make the fuel as harmful to the climate as coal. While the U.S. and the European Union have set targets requiring gas companies to keep these so-called "fugitive" emissions at or below 0.2 per cent, Canada does not have similar rules.

Moreover, researchers estimate that nearly twice as much methane is actually leaked into the atmosphere from the country's gas fields and pipelines than what companies report and is shown in government emissions data. In a 2021 report, a team working with support from the BC Oil and Gas Commission found that fossil fuel facilities in the province emit between 1.6 and 2.2 times more methane than federal estimates.

Producing and using gas is also a source of water and air pollution that threatens people's health and the environment, Lem noted.

But critics have pointed out that none of these harms are made evident to the average Vancouverite encountering pro-gas ads on city buses, and called for them to be taken down. In a Saturday tweet viewed over 16,000 times, climate activist and Canada's National Observer columnist Seth Klein took the city to task for the "enraging number of these garbage (natural gas) ads covering buses in Vancouver."

According to a price list posted by the advertising company Lamar, which manages the ads on TransLink buses, each natural gas ad costs about $1,230 and must be posted for at least eight weeks. The company estimates there are about 7.9 million boardings of TransLink buses in Vancouver each month.

Responding to the post, TransLink noted that advertising on its properties or vehicles "does not constitute express or implied endorsement of the content of the message." In a subsequent statement to Canada's National Observer, the organization added that it "must accept advertisements that do not violate any federal, provincial, or municipal laws or advertising standards" to protect freedom of expression rights.

"It's total greenwashing," said Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment president and Vancouver-area Dr. Melissa Lem. "There are all kinds of reasons why natural gas is not clean, is not affordable and does not reduce emissions."

Some Canadian public transport organizations have already removed fossil fuel advertising over climate concerns. BIXI, Montreal's public bike-share program, removed all pro-oilsands ads posted by Pathways Alliance, a coalition of Canadian oil and gas companies, from its bike stand in August. The city's public transit organization, the Société de transport de Montréal, also announced last week plans to ban fossil fuel advertising from its vehicles.

But despite Montreal's announcements, in Vancouver, the pro-gas ads continue to roll through the streets.

"It's disappointing to see fossil fuel ads displayed on a service that is generally good for society," Lem said.

Updates and corrections

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September 14, 2023, 10:00 am

Editor's note: This story was corrected to clarify that Roger Bryenton took the headline photo.

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It's telling that governments at all levels have no problem promoting, funding and building of roads, from cul-de-sacs to 10-lane freeways, no questions asked. Then they turn and habitually shortchange transit funding and commonly use rapid transit projects as a political soccer ball.

In pre-pandemic times (remember those?) TransLink covered half of its operating costs through the farebox. Name one public road that accomplishes that.

A city's road network not only costs society a huge amount of public financial resources but hoover up land like a malnourished hog discovering a trough full of leftovers. An urban road network typically occupies about 1/3rd of a city's entire land area. Traffic engineers routinely tell us it's for commercial traffic, which is valid, but also regularly forget to mention that 70% of the traffic gridlock is comprised of cars, the majority of them containing just one occupant.

Then you've got all the externalities and byproducts of running more than 90% of all those vehicles on fossil fuels, ergo hospitals filled with accident victims and persons with respiratory disease.

Electric transit and transit-oriented planning are too important to downplay or ignore any longer. Transit agencies shouldn't have to rely on advertising at all.

I understand that there is a law against false advertising. The advertising company should be charged.

In Calgary we see a similar set of lies. Some of our buses sport the words, "Cleaner Quieter, Better: Powered by natural gas". Three lies at once.

The OGI (oil and gas industry ) is a multi headed snake. They are working on many levels and fronts to perpetuate business as long as possible. We, and that's the public and governments at all levels need to oppose this because it's adding huge expenses to our future existance. Anywhere we can use existing laws, like false advertising, is a great gateway to exposing the truth about fossil fuel burning.