DeSmog

Groups Pressure Ottawa to Ban Fossil Fuel Ads in Public Facilities

An upcoming city policy review offers the best chance to drop “fundamentally misleading” ads designed to appeal to policy makers and consumers.
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A Canada Action ad touting a false narrative about liquified natural gas (LNG) appears on an Ottawa street. Credit: Erin Baird

Community organizations, environmental groups, and transit advocates are demanding the city of Ottawa ban fossil fuel advertising from public spaces.

Some of the slogans that have recently popped up in public facilities, billboards, and on buses and bus shelters throughout downtown Ottawa include: 

“Global Oil & Natural Gas Demand is Growing.”

“Our Allies are Asking for Canadian Energy.”

“As Long as the World Needs Oil & Gas, Shouldn’t it be Canadian?”

These ads are sponsored by an organization called Canada Action, and feature deceptive web addresses such as OurEnergyHelps.ca and ClimateActionCanada.ca.

“The ads we’ve seen around the city make some pretty ridiculous claims,” William van Geest, program coordinator for Ecology Ottawa, told DeSmog, referring to one particular ad that insinuates Canadian oil and natural gas is part of the solution to climate change. 

For the first time in 20 years, this month Ottawa will review its Corporate Sponsorship and Advertising Policy. Community groups such as Ecology Ottawa are looking forward to the review as a rare opportunity to stop fossil fuel companies from advertising in the city. If successful, this would prevent fossil fuel companies and their advocates from advertising in city-owned buildings, such as hockey arenas or community centres. The community groups intend to lead a separate campaign to also ban fossil fuel advertising on vehicles and infrastructure owned by the city’s transit agency.

Van Geest said that Shawn Menard, councillor for Ottawa’s Capital Ward, presented a motion to the city’s Finance and Corporate Services Committee on March 5 that asked staff to review the city’s Sponsorship and Advertising Policy with regard to fossil fuel promotion. 

“After almost 20 delegations asked for a ban on fossil-fuel promotion in city facilities, including a delegate from van Geest’s group Ecology Ottawa, the committee passed the motion unanimously,” van Geest said. It now goes to council for a vote on April 3.

Speaking on the ads that claim Canadian fossil fuels are part of the solution to climate change, van Geest said, “How can fossil fuel production, which is the primary cause of climate change, also somehow be a solution? Any attempt to promote something that’s responsible for so much harm is fundamentally misleading and in incorrigibly bad faitha prioritizing of business profits for a small number of shareholders over the lives of countless people, to say nothing of our planet.”

Melissa Lem, a family physician and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) echoed van Geest’s sentiment.

“These wildly misleading ads — that trick consumers into believing that oil and ‘natural’ gas from Canada is somehow cleaner and better for the world — threaten public health by stoking demand for a product that is literally killing my patients,” Dr. Lem said in a statement to DeSmog

A fossil fuel ad in Brewer Arena. Shawn Menard, councillor for Ottawa’s Capital War, wants to end the fossil fuel advertising in the city. Credit: Eugenie Waters/X

“There is no such thing as a clean fossil fuel,” she continued. She noted that when hydrocarbons burn, they generate air pollution that a recent Harvard study estimated is responsible for one in seven premature deaths in Canada.

Fossil fuels accelerated global heating that killed 619 people in one week in British Columbia during the 2021 heat dome, and completely overwhelmed emergency medical services, Dr. Lem pointed out. “If we don’t stop the disinformation now, and emissions and air pollution keep rising, we’re going to see more deadly weather events, more sick Canadians, and exponentially rising costs for the healthcare system.”

Given the ads are appearing all over Ottawa, Canada’s national capital, and in varying locations — transit stations, bus stops, hockey rinks – van Geest suspects the ads are directed at policy makers as much as the public at large.

“While there’s a relatively large number in the vicinity of the Parliamentary Precinct — where MPs and their staff often frequent — public servants live and play across the city of Ottawa, and you have to think that ads promoting fossil fuels in arenas are targeting them,” van Geest said. 

Councillor Menard’s motion includes a resolution asking Ottawa’s transit services staff to consider any amendments to the general city policy for rules related to transit advertising.

In addition to the support of Ottawa city councillors and Ecology Ottawa, several other groups are committed to the effort, including Horizon Ottawa, Seniors for Climate Action Now! Ottawa, and CAPE. Van Geest said that 15 organizations, including Ecology Ottawa, signed a letter sent to Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, and given more time, it would have contained more signatures. 

“Our partners at CAPE also sent a letter to the mayor signed by 23 health organizations. We’ve had numerous people contact us to thank us for our work on this initiative,” he said. 

The city’s legal department, which is concerned that prohibiting fossil fuel promotion in public facilities might contravene free speech rights, poses the main obstacle for banning the ads. Van Geest notes, however, that when considering tobacco advertising, past governments already determined that concerns for public health are more important than the freedom of expression of fossil-fuel promoters. 

Companies like Exxon and Imperial have been studying the impacts of their oil and gas products on the climate since the 1970s, said Julia Levin, associate director of National Climate with Environmental Defence. Levin was also among the delegates pressing the city of Ottawa to prevent fossil fuel companies from advertising in public spaces.

A Canada Action ad promoting oil and natural gas is posted on a bus stop in Ottawa. Credit: Helen Hsu

“That means they’ve known for the past 50 years that their products were going to destroy our planet’s ability to sustain life,” she added. “Did they decide in the 1970s, 80s, or 90s that they would change course and invest in new forms of energy? No. Instead, they invested massively in huge campaigns to discredit climate science and climate solutions. They lied to the public. They funded climate denial groups. They fought against any rules or oversight that might impact their profits.”

The Ottawa initiative comes on the heels of a similar effort by Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP), a left-centre federal political party. In early February, NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus introduced a proposed ban on fossil-fuel advertising based on successful legislation that banned advertising by the tobacco industry, back in the 1990s.

“We’ve been in touch with Charlie Angus on this issue,” van Geest said, adding that the MP has been supportive of the Ottawa initiative. “We’re hoping that his private member’s bill is adopted, which would obviously have a much greater impact than the very modest changes that we’re asking for,” van Geest said.

Canada Action, which sponsored the advertisements in Ottawa, is a registered charity that claims to be a non-partisan, grassroots effort to encourage support for the Canadian oil and gas industry. Investigations by DeSmog and others have found Canada Action has deep connections with the Conservative Party of Canada and the Canadian fossil fuel sector

Founder Cody Battershill has frequently stated that Canadian oil and gas resources are of a higher “environmental quality,” echoing a myth called “ethical oil.” Numerous studies indicate Canadian oil and gas are some of the dirtiest fossil fuels in the world, and that Canada’s continued production of tar sands oil resources is a major contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, the argument that Canadian oil and gas resources form any kind of benefit to the developing world — and that these resources are in high demand — have also been debunked as false.

A CAPP ad presents misinformation about LNG reducing coal emissions. Credit: Andrew Dumbrille

These reasons are possibly behind the recent advertising blitz in Canada by oil producers and their advocates. DeSmog reported in August 2023 about the Canadian tar sands cartel Pathways Alliance, which ran ads claiming “Our Net Zero Plan is in Motion” on buses and bus shelters in major Canadian cities. Pathways’ ad campaign led to an investigation by Canada’s competition watchdog for false advertising. Montreal’s public bike-sharing service pulled Pathways ads from their bike docking stations in August 2023 after considerable negative attention on social media. The bike-sharing service later stated that ads for tar sands producers were not aligned with their goals as a sustainable transit service. DeSmog also reported that the Pathways Alliance paid Google to distort search results for climate-change related terms, so they would always link to Pathways’ website.

Though the Canada Action ads were the majority of those reviewed by DeSmog, two other organizations also posted pro-fossil fuel advertisements in the heart of Canada’s national capital around the same time, from September 2023 through February 2024.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), a lobby group representing Canada’s “traditional” oil producers posted ads claiming Canadian liquid natural gas (LNG) could reduce global coal emissions by 188 million tonnes annually.

The fossil fuel sector has long claimed LNG will reduce or replace global coal consumption, but this is a false narrative. In fact, LNG is not only worse for the climate than previously thought, but it has limited impact in displacing global coal use.

CAPP’s advertisements used taglines including, “Let’s Make it Happen” and “Fuel the Canadian Advantage.”

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) also posted an ad that read “85% of Canadians don’t support your carbon tax hike.” 

CTF has long been at the forefront of climate change denial in Canada. Michael Binnion, president and founder of Questerre Energy and a tireless advocate for Canada’s oil and gas industry, was formerly the chair of CTF. He currently sits as the board chair of the Manning Foundation (formerly Canada Strong and Free Network) that promotes conservative ideas, and founded the Modern Miracle Network (MMN), a pro-oil lobby group.

A Canadian Taxpayers Federation ad presents false information about support for carbon taxes. Credit: Helen Hsu

Previous reports in the Globe and Mail indicate that the same board members of MMN also served on the CAPP board, including Binnion. Conservative politicians and Canada’s oil sector have a long history of working together to oust Justin Trudeau’s government.

While Trudeau’s carbon tax is unpopular, recent polling from the Angus Reid Institute indicates the number opposed is far lower than 85 percent. 

Despite the concerted effort by Big Oil and their advocates to promote fossil fuels and discourage efforts to control climate change on public infrastructure in Canadian cities, van Geest remains optimistic.

“We think the case for prohibiting fossil fuel promotion is strong,” he said. Allowing fossil fuel advertising is inconsistent with Ottawa’s climate commitments, he points out, like its declaration of a climate emergency, its commitment to phase out fossil fuel use by 2050, and its signing of the fossil-fuel non-proliferation treaty. 

“It’s also inconsistent with [Ottawa’s] responsibility toward public health — which is the basis for the prohibition on tobacco in the current policy,” van Geest said “It’s also worth noting that the city gains less than $13,000 in revenue from this advertising – less than $6,000, if you exclude transit facilities,” – so it has little to lose from a financial standpoint if they banned these ads.

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

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