Fossil Fuel Advocates Spread Disinfo About Canada’s False Advertising Bill

A Canadian MP has proposed a ban on deceptive fossil fuel advertising inspired by the anti-tobacco movement.
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Pathways Alliance ads are under investigation for greenwashing. Credit: Pathways Alliance YouTube

A member of the Canadian parliament has proposed a ban on misleading fossil fuel advertising. 

Taking inspiration from Canadian government bans on tobacco advertising that went into effect in the 1990s, New Democratic Party (NDP) MP Charlie Angus has proposed private members bill C-372, An Act respecting fossil fuel advertising.

Angus is a long-serving legislator, having represented his Northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay since 2004. Within the NDP he holds several roles, including ethics and federal development critic, as well as deputy labour critic, among others. Though the NDP is a centre-left opposition party, it is currently supporting the centrist Liberal Party and the minority government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

As reported in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault’s office stated that while they welcome the proposed legislation, they have other methods of holding the oil and gas sector accountable. Spokesperson Kaitlin Power told CBC that the government would carefully review Angus’ proposal.

Emilia Belliveau, energy transition program manager with Environmental Defense, applauded the bill. “If passed into law, the bill would be a valuable step toward limiting misinformation about fossil fuels and countering greenwashing.”

“The need for an advertising ban is clear and urgent: every year fossil-fuel pollution is directly linked to 34,000 premature deaths in Canada and over 8 million globally,” said Sabrina Bowman, interim executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE). 

“Many more Canadians will also suffer negative health impacts – including conditions such as cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular and respiratory disorders as a result of toxic emissions,” continued Bowman in a statement. 

“Shockingly, Canada has the third highest global rate of new childhood asthma cases from traffic pollution, following Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The United Nations has estimated that in 2018 alone, air pollution from fossil fuels caused $2.9 trillion in health and economic costs; that works out to a staggering $8 billion a day. This is without considering deaths from climate related events, like the heat dome in British Columbia in 2021 that claimed 600 lives.”

The proposed legislation is in response to an uptick in advertising campaigns by Canada’s oil and gas industry that present themselves as part of the solution to the climate crisis. Canada’s governments — both federal and provincial — are second globally in providing public subsidies to carbon capture efforts, which experts argue is exacerbating climate change. Canada’s hydrogen sector has been found to be developing comic books that cast hydrogen derived from natural gas as a sustainable component of the energy transition, while a consortia of tar sands producers — the Pathways Alliance — has been advertising on mass transit systems across Canada, insinuating they’re part of a national net zero strategy. Canadian think tanks affiliated with the pro-fossil fuel Atlas Network have launched op-ed campaigns in Canada’s mainstream media aimed at discouraging federal government sustainability and energy transition efforts, while ideologically-motivated provincial premiers have turned industry and lobbyist talking points into regressive policies, such as enforcing a moratorium on renewable energy development.

Belliveau said consumer protections are still lacking when it comes to industry claims. “The Competition Bureau has launched investigations into false advertising by Shell and the Pathways Alliance, both of which changed or stopped running their ads in response. In January, the Competition Bureau announced that it would begin an investigation of Enbridge Gas.”

“The fossil fuel industry has a long history of obfuscating and hiding the truth,” says Brendan Glauser, director of communications for the Suzuki Foundation. 

“We now know that the fossil fuel industry knew as early as the 1950s that their operations would have devastating effects on the planet,” said Glauser in a statement to DeSmog. “And a new study by the Canadian federal government found that pollution from the Alberta tar sands is up to 6,300% higher than reported by industry. Fossil fuel interests invest millions in Canada (billions around the world) on misleading ad and PR campaigns. These ads are everywhere, and they’re swaying public opinion on the climate crisis and our shared energy future.”

Thanks to uncritical support from mainstream Canadian media and major Canadian political parties, fossil fuel advocacy in Canada goes far beyond the think tanks and lobbyists. Canadian conservatives have effectively made oil and gas promotion a policy cornerstone and climate action an ideological enemy. What began over a decade ago as a campaign to discredit environmentalists and ENGOs by insinuating they were a foreign funded effort designed to landlock Canadian resources and impoverish the oil and gas rich Western Canadian provinces, has now evolved into a widespread and concerted effort to vilify decarbonization efforts. 

Such was on full display in the pages of the National Post this week, where columnist Tristin Hopper argued the “NDP bill would prescribe jail terms for speaking well of fossil fuels.”

The bill proposes fines up to $1.5 million and imprisonment up to two years for some offences. But regular people with personal opinions won’t be affected, said Dr. Leah Temper, director of CAPE’s health and economic policy program.

“The bill only takes aim at corporate advertising,” Temper told DeSmog.

“People are free to express their opinion how they want, in op-eds, Facebook, bumper stickers, or wherever they want. It would operate almost exactly like the current restrictions on tobacco advertising. It is very sloppy journalism on the part of the National Post to suggest otherwise.” 

A story with a nearly identical headline suggesting jail time for “speaking positively about oil and gas” ran on True North Centre, another right-wing opinion site. The National Post also ran a comment from University of British Columbia lecturer Adam Pankrantz titled “The NDP’s loathsome pitch to criminalize climate dissent.” Alberta Premier Danielle Smith also repeated misleading information about the proposal, implying it would affect anything other than false advertising.

“This bill would crack down on the pervasive greenwashing by the fossil fuel industry,” responded Belliveau. 

“It does not limit individuals’ freedom of expression, and there are provisions protecting artistic expression and science communication. Oil and gas companies, and industry lobby groups, spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns each year promoting fossil fuels, and increasingly they are misleading the public about the environmental and health impacts of the production and use of fossil fuels. It is entirely reasonable to regulate the advertising of products that cause such extensive harm.”

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Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian.

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