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Ads promoting B.C. gas slammed by watchdog as 'greenwashing' but kept running

The ads from the Canada Action Coalition breached five clauses of Canada's code for advertising standards. Among other things, the ads were found to be inaccurate and deceptive.
Gas advertisements from the Canada Action Coalition were found to have distorted scientific statements.

Canada’s advertising regulatory body has unanimously determined a campaign stating B.C. liquefied natural gas “will reduce global emissions” distorted the true meaning of scientific and professional statements, and in the end, amounted to “greenwashing.” 

The Ad Standards Canada case centred around a series of billboard, newspaper and transit advertisements produced by the Canada Action Coalition, a self-described “grassroots” organization that advocates for the development of natural resources like oil and gas.

Glacier Media reviewed the confidential decision and correspondence confirming the non-governmental industry group had come to its decision. 

Ads Standards spokesperson Jessica Yared said the group does not comment on decisions that have not been published to its website as "confidentiality is key to the complaints procedure."

"Only decisions published to our website are official, final, and public," said Yared.

As of May 28, the last decision published on the group's website was from 2021.

Leah Temper, health and economic policy program director at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), said her organization knows of at least 18 complaints filed with the national body.  

“We’re seeing this flood of disinformation campaigns coming from the oil and gas industry,” said Temper. “They have millions of dollars to spread disinformation. We have very little means to counteract it, contest it.” 

Canada Action doesn't fully disclose where it gets its funding, but Temper pointed to public filings that show the group has spent more than $5 million on advertising between 2017 and 2022, while receiving over $7 million in corporate sponsorships. 

Calvin Sandborn, former legal director at the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, described the Ads Standards decision as “enormously significant,” and follows a string of rulings in Europe, New Zealand and the United Kingdom that found gas companies made misleading statements about their products. 

“It’s really significant in the larger context of showing how misleading so much of the promotion of fossil fuels is,” he said. 

Ads Council ruling cites 'greenwashing'

In its transit ad, Canada Action also claimed “The world is asking for Canadian Energy,” the word Canadian represented with a flag. Newspaper ads, meanwhile, came with explanations on “how B.C. LNG projects will reach the goals of sustainability, affordability and reliability.” 

“Council unanimously determined that the evidence provided by the advertiser was insufficient to support the absolute claim that ‘B.C. LNG will reduce global emissions,’” says the decision. 

“Rather the evidence submitted to Ad Standards indicated that LNG could reduce emissions if only taking into consideration the off setting of transitioning from coal to gas.” 

In its determination, the council found the added information in the newspaper ads “did not change the overall misleading impression conveyed by the prominent absolute claim that B.C. LNG is food for the environment” and amounted to “greenwashing” — the practice of using false, misleading or unsubstantiated environmental claims to create an impression that a product or service is ‘greener’ than it really is. 

The ads from Canada Action were found to be in breach of five clauses of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, including making inaccurate, deceptive or otherwise misleading claims; omitting relevant information to deceive or mislead; and failing to back up claims with competent and reliable evidence. 

One of the clauses the group was found to have breached states: “Advertisements must not distort the true meaning of statements made by professionals or scientific authorities.”

Canada Action’s Cody Battershill said his group’s advertising is “grounded in facts” and that it has appealed the decision.

"We pride ourselves on ensuring that all of our content in various forms of media, whether that be online, in print, or on billboards, is taken from only the most credible and reputable sources. In many instances, our messaging is derived from Canadian and Indigenous leaders themselves," read an emailed statement from Canada Action.

The statement noted Canadian LNG exports “will reduce global emissions by backing out [of] higher-carbon alternatives.” 

“Switching from coal to natural gas for power and heat generation is a clear win for the global environment, with examples in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere globally showing just how tangible these emissions reductions are,” said Battershill.  

Ads still running despite breaches

According to Sandborn and Temper, the watchdog body does not have the regulatory power to punish breaches of advertising standards, but it can send out calls to halt and recall false advertising.

In the months since the Jan. 30 Ads Canada decision, CAPE says Canada Action has continued its LNG advertising campaign across B.C. and Ontario. Some of those ads have appeared on billboards and public transit while others have been featured on the radio and in major newspapers.

In late April and early May, Canada Action repeated the same already censured ads — “THE WORLD IS ASKING FOR CANADA’S LNG” and “B.C. LNG WILL REDUCE GLOBAL EMISSIONS” — both in full, front-page ads in the Times Colonist.

“Ads Standards would ask them to take down the ads. But the whole process is confidential and not transparent,” said Temper. “We don’t know what was said. All we know is they continue to run these ads.” 

In a statement, Ads Standards' president and CEO Catherine Bate said the advertiser was only made aware of the January decision May 7. 

“Due to egregious violations of confidentiality in this case, by the leaking of this decision which was not final, we will only be advising the advertiser of the outcome of the appeal. We will not be able to report the results of that decision publicly, or to comment further,” said Bate.

Greenwashing destroy's market's ability to protect environment, says lawyer

Last year, Sandborn and his former team at UVic traced decades of deceptive advertising by oil and gas companies — part of a submission to the federal government around its push to modernize the Competition Act.

“A few years ago, industry was playing along, saying we’re going to do this [climate change] stuff. Now, there definitely seems to be an uptick” in deceptive advertising, he said. 

Sandborn said companies and advocates for industry write ad campaigns to leave an impression, and to convince people that environmental products are green. 

“But if things that are not green are misleadingly advertised, there's no way consumers can distinguish between what's actually green and what's not green,” he said. 

“It absolutely destroys the ability to harness the market to protect the environment.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to include comment from Ads Standards and additional comment from Canada Action.