For months, social media feeds in Canada have been bombarded with ads touting efforts by provincial gas utilities to capture so-called "renewable natural gas" produced from decomposing organic waste. From B.C. to Quebec, the ads suggest measures to phase out gas aren't needed because gas from landfills and manure pits will soon heat millions of homes.

That's not true. While gas utilities like FortisBC and Quebec's Énergir do use renewable natural gas, the fuel is only projected to account for a tiny fraction of their supply. The remainder will come from pumping planet-warming fossil fuels out of the ground.

The case is one of many examples of fossil fuel disinformation, experts say. And the fact that Canada's truth-in-advertising laws likely couldn’t challenge this and many other forms of greenwashing highlight weaknesses in the Competition Act, even after the federal government recently published amendments meant to tackle the problem.

The Competition Act is designed to prevent anti-competitive practices like price-fixing. But it includes provisions that allow the Competition Bureau, the independent enforcement body, to pursue companies for false marketing and other deceptive practices.

But the act only applies to substantiate statements that could influence consumers to buy the product, not general statements about a business or an industry. As it stands, broad sustainability claims by fossil fuel companies could be excluded, explained Université de Sherbrooke lecturer Julien Beaulieu. Furthermore, until the amendments are implemented, the act does not require companies to provide evidence backing their environmental claims or make any evidence offered by companies to the Competition Bureau public.

The amendments require companies to back up their environmental claims with sufficient tests. Previously, businesses only needed to back up claims about a product’s "performance, efficacy or longevity.” The amendments will extend this requirement to claims about "protecting the environment or mitigating the environmental and ecological effects of climate change," Beaulieu said.

However, they will likely not extend this requirement to include general sustainability claims by the oil and gas industry. The rules also might be vague enough that companies could argue they only apply to advertising that focuses on how their products impact climate change adaptation while omitting information about how they are not trying to mitigate the crisis, Beaulieu explained.

For example, a national ad campaign by the Pathways Alliance, a coalition of Canada's six largest oil companies, could fall outside the scope of the Competition Act's substantiation requirements, even with the amendments. The campaign claims the group's "net-zero plan is in motion” but fails to note the plan excludes 80 per cent of the companies' greenhouse gas emissions.

The Pathways Alliance campaign is currently under evaluation by the Competition Bureau for deceptive practices, but the agency is tight-lipped about the case, Beaulieu said.

The Competition Act only applies to statements that could influence consumers to buy the product, not general statements about a business or an industry.

In addition to extending the Competition Act to cover environmental claims, the amendments include a provision that lets people bypass the Competition Bureau and sue companies directly for greenwashing. They also include provisions meant to reduce planned obsolescence and give companies permission to co-operate on sustainability initiatives without being accused of conspiracy.

While the changes mark "some advancement" in forcing companies to own up to and reduce their environmental impacts, the government's decision to avoid more substantial changes is "unfortunate," said Leah Temper, health and economic policy director for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).

"Decarbonizing our economy to move away from fossil fuels is the biggest challenge businesses are facing right now," she said. "It's unfortunate that we're doing a once-in-a-century update of the Competition Act and not taking that into account."

Other countries have taken far more aggressive stances on the issue. Last year, France banned ads for fossil fuels and required auto manufacturers to encourage people to use public transportation in their ads. The country also requires companies to include a QR code on eco-branded products that links to the research backing up the ecological claim.

Earlier this year, the European Union made similar moves, publishing a directive that prohibits the most common types of fossil fuel greenwashing. And several cities like Amsterdam, Stockholm and Liverpool have either banned or pledged a ban on fossil fuel advertising, according to a recent report by CAPE and Greenpeace.

Temper would like to see federal officials follow the Europeans' lead but noted that simply ensuring the Competition Bureau is strictly enforcing its greenwashing rules would be a positive step. That will require training people to undertake complex greenwashing investigations and investing resources to "act proactively" on the problem.

"We really can't wait," she said. "Every year that this pervasive greenwashing is allowed to continue, it's slowing down the green transition."

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
December 11, 2023, 01:10 pm

Editor's note: This story was amended to clarify that Justin Beaulieu is a lecturer at the Université de Sherbrooke and that some Competition Act provisions relate to companies' ability to substantiate their claims.

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The gas companies will probably be able to get away with greenwashing as long as society is heavily dependent on natural gas (not to mention liquid petroleum fuels). This will remain a fact of life in our household as long as it remains financially impossible to not just convert to clean electricity, but to make the necessary upgrades to an older electrical system, which means ripping up several walls for new 240v wiring with a minimum 30 amp capability for a central heat pump, an on-demand hot water heater and a new induction kitchen range. A new ductless clothes dryer (also uses a heat pump) would require only a standard 120v service, but they are 2-3X more expensive than a standard ducted dryer with a 240v service.

Up the grants way more, and we're in. This issue is connected to international affairs.

Some national governments in Europe are covering 100% of the costs of replacing gas furnaces and boilers with cold-weather rated heat pumps, mainly due to their prior stupidity of becoming addicted to Russian gas. This turned out to be part of Putin's long term plan all along. His calculation to build another Russian Empire using military force worked well, and his takeover of Crimea went without much resistance from the West. He counted on the EU and NATO to not interfere, but when he uncloaked his inner Satan and launched deep into Ukraine using mass genocide against innocents, the West finally woke up and up went the military assistance to Ukraine (not nearly enough, but something) and off went half the gas valves, mainly turned off by Russia in winter to extort relaxation on assistance to Ukraine. Tis is the second time around for Russian genocide in Ukraine. The first was the Holodomor under Stalin in the 1930s

It didn't go according to plan. The EU and NATO responded with temporary alternative sources of gas and by steeply ramping up mainly new wind and solar power generation, but also by official government efforts to quit gas through heavy subsidies to switch to heat pumps, rooftop solar, EVs with networked batteries and so forth.

After nearly two years of war, unfortunately, conservatives in the US and EU are now playing their own game of halting support for Ukraine and either ignoring or outrightly supporting Putin's dictatorship. I don't believe this will achieve more than a short-term effect to realize their naive, myopic and utterly deluded domestic political aims, but will certainly give Russia -- after time to regroup and rearm -- the energy to attempt one day to continue to the Baltic Sea and absorb half of Europe. Poland and Germany and lots of other nations have long memories will not allow that, and therein WWIII is closer than we think.

The history books will show conservatives in the West as being the prime motivators to lower the defences of democracy against fascism. The GOP, Hungary and a handful of other political entities are now aligning in their admiration of dictatorship as a form of "strength."

Moving beyond fossil fuels is policy Canada could adapt quickly if it had the gumption. It should be part of a national climate plan along with affordable housing, and would help erode not just the greenwashing efforts of the carbon industry, but the financial underpinning of the Russian war machine, whose sole financier is the international sale of oil and gas. Thus fossil fuels are weapons.

Renewables help fight climate change AND fascism.

I'd question the wisdom of pumping laundry exhaust back into a home. Many of the substances in laundry products are toxic: undesirable to breathe no matter what, but especially for children (and pregnant women).

Educating the public so that they know they are being duped, and why, might actually be even more effective than closing every greenwashing loophole.

The reason d'etre of Pathways Alliance is to promote the product of its members. Their statements are all for the purpose of selling oil. Their misleading statements are for the purpose of selling product, of convincing would-be purchasers to buy ... based on on a false implication that gas (or CCS oil) is a "clean" fuel. People who want to see a liveable climate DO buy green-labelled products: the problem is deceptive advertising ... it is fraud by any other name.
What the anti-greenwash measures need is to include fact-language ... and the full life-cycle of emissions (i.e., Scope 1, 2, AND 3).

Stopping industry-generated misinformation and greenwashing is an extremely important step to prevent people from being manipulated by the fossil fuel industry. But there needs to be competition rules that impose the same restrictions on political advertising. I filed a complaint with the Competition Bureau about Alberta's "Tell The Feds" advertising campaign that makes false and misleading claims about renewable energy. I was told this is considered political advertising and is therefore exempt from competition rules. Nevertheless, this advertising is harming a fossil fuel industry competitor and increasing energy costs for consumers by making landowners and citizens reject solar and wind energy. There are also provincial government funded organizations like The Canadian Energy Centre that create fossil industry propaganda and a complaint mechanism should be available when they cross the line and make false or misleading statements. An industry fighting for its life will inevitably use dirty tactics as the situation becomes more desperate. Policy must be in place to control blatant manipulation and coopting of public opinion.