In late September the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment filed a complaint with Competition Bureau Canada, a federal watchdog that protects consumers from false and misleading claims made by companies. In early November the bureau notified the association that it was going ahead with an investigation.
Dr. Melissa Lem, CAPE’s president, told The Tyee the oil and gas industry is overhauling its decades-long campaign to downplay the impacts of climate change. Now the industry is trying to greenwash its product — and organizations like CAPE are working to counteract those claims, she says.
“It’s time we hold the fossil fuel industry to account for its misleading claims, to end the proliferation of fossil fuels and to make sure we have a healthy future,” Lem says.
The Canadian Gas Association is not the only one being fact-checked. The Competition Bureau is also investigating the Royal Bank of Canada for greenwashing after the environmental organization Stand.earth and the law firm Ecojustice filed a complaint alleging the bank is misleading its customers by claiming to work towards reducing emissions while at the same time investing heavily in fossil fuel production and expansion.
It’s “particularly egregious” for the Canadian Gas Association to use images of “happy, healthy-looking families cooking over open-flame gas stoves,” Lem says, because “we know the research tells us children living in homes with gas stoves have a 42 per cent higher risk of developing asthma.”
Advertising fossil gas, also known as natural gas, as “clean” while showing pictures of people walking through lush, green forests implies that the product is good for your health and doesn’t create pollution, Lem says. “It’s the opposite of that,” she adds.
The complaint also raised concerns that marketing a product as “budget friendly” could attract low-income customers, who could be heavily impacted as carbon tax and emissions reductions strategies drive up fossil gas prices in the years to come.
(A recent Tyee article debunked some similar claims made by the province's main fossil gas utility, FortisBC, which you can read here.)
When asked to respond to these allegations, Timothy Egan, president and CEO of the Canadian Gas Association told The Tyee the association will co-operate with the investigation and “is confident in its position.”
Fossil gas demand is rising in Canada, Egan adds.
The Canadian Gas Association’s members include FortisBC, Enbridge, Énergir, TC Energy, Heritage Gas and Epcor.
CAPE is asking for the Canadian Gas Association to stop advertising fossil gas as clean, environmentally friendly and affordable and to pay a $10 million fine. That’s the largest fine possible under the Competition Act.
The Competition Bureau did not reply to questions about what fines or punitive actions could be associated with greenwashing.
Lem says filing the complaint with the bureau was the second phase of the CAPE’s Fossil Fuel Ads Make Us Sick campaign, which is calling for Canada to prohibit the advertising of fossil fuels and internal combustion engine vehicles.
The first phase, launched in June 2022, included an open letter to government calling for an ad ban.
Similar overseas campaigns have been successful in Amsterdam, which banned fossil fuel and aviation ads last year, and in France, which banned ads related to fossil fuels this summer. For now fossil gas advertising is allowed, but will likely be phased out next summer.
Then there’s the RBC investigation.
The complaint filed in June 2022 says RBC presents itself as environmentally conscious and says it supports the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 C and the federal goal of producing net-zero emissions in its lending by 2050.
But in practice RBC finances fossil fuel development and expansion, including the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is being built on the unceded territory of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, without the consent of the nation’s Hereditary Chiefs.
RBC “disagrees” with the allegations and calls them “unfounded.”
“RBC has been engaging with our clients, partners and stakeholders, working towards solutions to meet its net-zero commitments,” Andrew Block, a spokesperson for the bank, told The Tyee in a statement. “We have taken a measured, thoughtful and deliberate approach in our climate strategy.”
This is the same statement RBC gave to The Tyee when the complaint was first filed with the Competition Bureau in May 2022, before an investigation was opened.
RBC is ranked as the fifth largest fossil fuel financier in the world, providing $48.4 billion in fossil fuel financing in 2021 and $251.2 billion since 2016, when Canada signed the Paris Agreement, according to the annual Banking on Climate Chaos report, produced by environmental organizations like the Rainforest Action Network and Sierra Club.
The bank is also unlikely to drop its oil investments anytime soon. According to calculations by RBC the price of oil needs to remain above $50 per barrel for the next 20 to 30 years in order for its oilsands investments to be profitable.
There will be a “significant impact” within the Canadian banking industry if RBC is found guilty of greenwashing, Matt Hulse, a lawyer with Ecojustice, told The Tyee. RBC is the market leader. If they're slapped on the wrist, other banks would “swiftly” update their marketing strategies, he says.
The complaint against RBC requested the bank also be fined $10 million, Hulse says.
In January 2022 the coffee company Keurig Canada Inc. had to pay almost $4 million when the Competition Bureau found its single-use pods were not as easily recyclable as the company’s marketing suggested.
The Competition Act is currently being reviewed and public consultations are open until Feb. 27, 2023.
Hulse says the act needs to be updated so greenwashing can be countered in “a more systematic and proactive way,” rather than the current system of “ad-hoc Whack-A-Mole.”