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.