DeSmog

Oil Sands Companies Are ‘Distorting Public Information’ on Google, Expert Says

Ad data reviewed by DeSmog shows industry group paid Google to link its website to hundreds of climate-related search terms.
Geoff Dembicki
Geoff Dembicki
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Google homepage displayed on a phone
Pathways Alliance advertised on search terms like 'government of canada climate change.' Credit: Solen Feyissa / Wikimedia Commons

A lobbying and marketing group representing top Canadian oil sands producers paid Google to link its website to hundreds of search terms related to climate change over the past three months, according to advertising data reviewed by DeSmog. 

That means that when people went on Google seeking information about global temperature rise or federal climate policy, one of the first links that appeared was the website for the Pathways Alliance, a group whose members account for 95 percent of oil sands production.

“It’s kind of scary actually,” said Priyanka Vittal, legal counsel for Greenpeace Canada, which recently filed a complaint with the Competition Bureau accusing the Pathways Alliance of making false and misleading claims about the oil sands industry’s climate impacts in television, newspaper and social media ads. “It’s a little bit dystopian.”

In early January, for example, Canadians who searched “how we can stop climate change” on Google would be directed to a Pathways Alliance site claiming oil sands producers are prepared to spend $24.1 billion by 2030  “on an ambitious, actionable plan to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” 

In reality, those companies haven’t yet made a final investment decision on the carbon capture and storage technology at the heart of that plan. And “it remains the case that most details of these plans remain undisclosed,” claimed a late November analysis from the non-partisan Pembina Institute.

Another search term that the Pathways Alliance paid to advertise on was “environment and climate change canada,” which is the name of the federal Canadian department tasked with creating environmental regulations. 

The Pathways Alliance also advertised on terms such as “what is global warming,” “net-zero,” “carbon emissions,” “climate change in canada,” “why is climate change important,” “whats a carbon footprint” and “government of canada climate change.”

“On a basic level, it’s a way of distorting public information,” said Callum Hood, head of research for the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an international non-profit that tracks and exposes online disinformation and greenwashing. “This is quite an effective way for oil and gas companies to promote content on Google search that portrays them as eco-friendly, as attempting to tackle climate change, when the truth is quite the opposite.”

The Pathways Alliance didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Google explained in a statement to DeSmog that “we have robust ad policies that expressly prohibit ads/advertisers from using misrepresentation. This includes advertisers fraudulently claiming that they or their product or services hold certain certifications or licenses relating to sustainability or green practices. When we find ads that violate this policy we remove them from serving.”

DeSmog obtained the Pathways Alliance data by using a commercial analytics tool called Semrush. The tool, which shows Google search terms that brands and organizations pay to advertise on, can be used by marketers to “create strategic advertising campaigns, outperform competitors, raise awareness of their brand and know that their money is being spent wisely,” Semrush explains on its website. 

The Center for Countering Digital Hate used Semrush data in a report last year revealing that oil and gas companies including BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell were buying ads in the U.S. on Google search terms such as “net-zero,” “eco-friendly,” and “how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” 

This tactic is concerning, Hood said, because “Google search is the primary way in which people get information about all sorts of topics including climate change.”

In Canada, the oil and gas industry accounts for one-quarter of all the greenhouse gas emissions released annually in the country. The Pathways Alliance said in submissions to the federal government last year that one goal of its “net-zero” strategy is to expand the industry even further. Experts predict that oil sands production could rise by 500,000 barrels per day within the next decade. 

Yet when Canadians searched “top greenhouse gas emitters” on Google in January they were shown a link that claims “Pathways Alliance is working to reduce carbon emissions from oil sands production,” according to the Semrush data.

“In 2021, we launched a new, industry-leading policy that explicitly prohibits ads promoting false claims about the existence and causes of climate change,” a Google spokesperson wrote to DeSmog. “When we find content that crosses the line from policy debate or a discussion of green initiatives to promoting outright climate change denial, we remove those ads from serving.”

Yet the policy allows some wiggle room. “[It] does not block specific types of advertisers on our platform, provided their ads comply with all of our policies. This includes ads promoting green initiatives or questioning climate policy,” the Google statement explained.

Hood thinks the tech giant must create clearer guidelines prohibiting “greenwashing,” the practice of falsely representing a polluting company’s actions as being beneficial for the environment. “Google should be strengthening their policies on content that outright misleads or misinforms people about climate change,” he said. 

Geoff Dembicki
Geoff Dembicki is an investigative climate journalist based in New York City. He is author of The Petroleum Papers and Are We Screwed?

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