What Lies Beneath: Pathways Alliance, Greenwashing, Networks and Narratives

Tar sands of Alberta, Canada

Alberta, Canada — An aerial view of Alberta's tar sands, one of the largest remaining oil reserves on the planet. Image: Kris Krug.

What is greenwashing, how can we detect it, and what can we do about it? In May 2024, Re.Climate hosted a webinar describing how Pathways Alliance, a coalition of six oil companies that make up 95% of Alberta’s oil sands production, have been working hard to change their image from climate laggard to net zero advocate in order to gain the public’s support and ultimately continue to expand oil and gas production.

What Lies Beneath: Pathways Alliance, Greenwashing, Networks and Narratives” webinar

On May 23, 2024, researchers Melissa Aronczyk, Patrick McCurdy and Chris Russill shared the findings of their paper “Greenwashing, Net Zero, and the Oil Sands in Canada: The Case of Pathways Alliance.” 

We gained crucial insights into how Pathways Alliance and other groups of oil and gas companies use a variety of greenwashing techniques—from jargon and misleading visual symbols to dubious standards and outright lies—giving the public the perception that they are committed to climate action. 

But in reality, Pathways Alliance isn’t adhering to the plan it shared with Canadians or proving to be a credible partner in climate policy. Their emissions are growing and the sector is a primary contributor to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, which grew by 88% between 1990 and 2021. As greenwashing becomes more brazen in the fossil fuel industry, people feel more uncertain and cynical about all climate solutions, unsure of what’s real and what’s not. 

As Chris Russill warned, “Before long, the ambient distrust that follows from this ambient deception is going to destroy the conditions for an energy transition much quicker and more effectively in my view than any authoritarian government or climate denial influencer on YouTube ever could do.”

What exactly is greenwashing and why does it matter?


Put simply, greenwashing is “an umbrella term for a variety of misleading communications and practices that, intentionally or not, induce false positive perceptions of an organization’s environmental performance” (Nemes, et al., 2022). 

Melissa Aronczyk, along with some colleagues, has created a handy assessment tool for identifying instances of greenwashing. Keeping tabs on what oil and gas companies are claiming can be critical for bringing legal cases against them for deceiving the public, and there is already increased scrutiny on oil and gas advertising in Canada. For example, NDP MP Charlie Angus has put forward a bill to ban misleading fossil fuel advertising. The BC Green Party tabled a bill in April to prevent climate-polluting companies from engaging in greenwashing and require claims of corporate sustainability to be backed up

Momentum is growing across Canada and around the world as legislators and communities seek to end rampant greenwashing. 

Here are some more of the panelists’ key takeaways: 

  • Greenwashing is not new. Efforts to greenwash oil sands production have been going on since at least 2010, connecting Canadian values with fossil fuel extraction. Early advertisements by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), for example, claimed that Canadian oil was more “ethical” than oil from other countries, directly appealing to the idea that Canada has a reputation for responsibility, community and diplomacy. Pathways Alliance has followed the same playbook, trying to integrate oil and gas production with values we associate with being a good Canadian. 

  • After all, greenwashing is often about feelings and emotions, not simply whether claims are true or false. The purpose of greenwashing is to deflect concern from the fact that emissions from fossil fuel produced in Canada continue to rise. It’s meant to make people feel good about our continued use of oil and gas. The use of particular colours and images also helps create positive emotions in those viewing the ads. Some Pathways Alliance advertising uses blue skies with white fluffy clouds behind the slogan “let’s clear the air” to associate their brand with cleanliness, trust and transparency. The colour green is also frequently used in Pathways advertising to connect the coalition with “green” values.

  • While public advertising is where greenwashing is most visible, Pathways Alliance does more than take out ads on our city buses and hockey rinks. “The most consistent indicator of greenwashing is Pathways’ repeated failure to account publicly for all emissions,” the researchers wrote in their article. Pathways does not include emissions that come from burning the oil and gas they produce–think the gas we put in our cars or the fuel that heats our homes–in their plan. But even if they only accounted for emissions released in the production of oil and gas, evidence suggests they are lowballing. “We have some scientists that have come forward to say anyone using conventional methods for counting oil sands emissions…the emissions are systematically under-counted,” said Chris Russill.

  • For climate communicators, it is tempting to try and combat greenwashing with more public advertising. But the researchers suggested that in addition to providing a different perspective to the public, communicators should be thinking about policymakers and regulators as an audience when debunking greenwashing, because ultimately, they have the power to stop companies from engaging in greenwashing in the first place. 

  • But that’s not to say that the public can’t build power too. The idea that we should ban fossil fuel ads is a point of growing discussions and gaining traction around the world. Organizations like World without Fossil Ads are pushing back against oil and gas greenwashing, winning ad bans across Europe. Other organizations are filing lawsuits and legal complaints against oil and gas companies for their false claims in advertising. In fact, the Competition Bureau, prompted by the efforts of Greenpeace Canada,is investigating Pathways Alliance for their net zero and climate action claims. The Bureau’s Commissioner is even going so far as to ask the federal government for an amendment to the Competition Act that addresses “environmental claims about a business or a brand as a whole” instead of focusing just on environmental claims about products. 

  • Although greenwashing has been around for a long time, what we’re seeing now is not only an effort to make products appear greener but a society-wide effort to shape the very ideas and debates around policy that transition us away from fossil fuels. This effort is not happening in Canada alone. The oil and gas companies that make up Pathways Alliance operate around the world. They also use multinational PR firms and ad agencies, who share resources, strategies and techniques for delaying and weakening regulations that would force oil and gas companies to lower their emissions. Melissa Aronczyk described it as an international network of strategizing. Regulators around the world may need to follow suit in order to tackle this pervasive problem. 

Our Panelists

Panelists Melissa Aronczyk, Patrick McCurdy and Chris Russill What Lies Beneath Webinar

Dr. Melissa Aronczyk | Re.Climate Research Associate | Professor of Media Studies in the School of Communication & Information, Rutgers University
Melissa Aronczyk is the co-author, with Maria Espinoza, of A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of Environmentalism (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2023 Roderick P. Hart Outstanding Book Award in Political Communication and the 2022 Outstanding Book Award in Public Relations, Innovation, Development and Educational Achievement (PRIDE), both from the National Communication Association.

Dr. Patrick McCurdy | Re.Climate Research Associate | Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, University of Ottawa
Patrick McCurdy’s research uses communication and social theory to study media as a site and source of social struggle. Since 2014, he has focused on the polarized debate over the Athabasca oil sands. In April 2024, together with Chris Russill, he received an Insight Grant from SSHRC for a 4-year research project titled “Greenwashing and the Energy Transition: A Framework for Assessing Net Zero Communication in the Canadian Oil Sands Sector.”

Dr. Chris Russill | Re.Climate Academic Director | Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University
Chris Russill’s current work focuses on problems of disinformation and denial in their relevance to climate action. Chris co-edited Critical Approaches to Climate Change and Civic Action with Anabela Carvalho and Julie Doyle, a collection exploring conceptual invention in public forms of climate action.

 Resources

From the researchers: 


Lawsuits and complaints:
 

Fossil ad bans and creative actions:

Educational materials to teach climate change:

Books: 

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