Quiet the Oil and Gas Industry with This One Weird Trick

12 Min Read

June 28, 2024

Jordan B. Kinder is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He holds a PhD in English and Film Studies from the University of Alberta and previously held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard and McGill.

In the past few days, the promotional arms of Canada’s oil and gas industry did something unprecedented—they stopped talking. Or, at least, they did so after making a series of statements as to why they’re going silent, citing new legislation as their reason.

 

On June 20, 2024, Bill C-59 underwent its third reading and received Royal Assent. The bill included two amendments to Canada’s Competition Act that would make misleading claims about a product’s capacities to protect the environment or mitigate climate change a fineable offence in what commentators have dubbed an “anti-greenwashing rule.” The relevant amendments state:

         236 (1) Subsection 74.‍01(1) of the Act is amended by striking out “or” at the end of paragraph (b) and by adding the following after that paragraph:

(b.‍1) makes a representation to the public in the form of a statement, warranty or guarantee of a product’s benefits for protecting or restoring the environment or mitigating the environmental, social and ecological causes or effects of climate change that is not based on an adequate and proper test, the proof of which lies on the person making the representation;

(b.‍2) makes a representation to the public with respect to the benefits of a business or business activity for protecting or restoring the environment or mitigating the environmental and ecological causes or effects of climate change that is not based on adequate and proper substantiation in accordance with internationally recognized methodology, the proof of which lies on the person making the representation…

Official oil and gas lobbying and advocacy organizations and their unofficial allies responded swiftly. The Pathways Alliance, a consortium of six of Canada’s largest oil sands companies that funds and promotes oil sands innovation, largely to make the oil sands net-zero by 2050, removed all of their social media content, leaving only a statement on their homepage as to why they chose to go dark. The largest oil and gas lobbying organization in Canada, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), released a statement announcing that it “has chosen to reduce the amount of information it makes available on its website and other digital platforms until the Competition Bureau has released further guidance on how these amendments will be implemented.” The creator of the pro-oil group Oil Sands Strong took to Facebook to reflect on the advocacy work he has done over the past decade and to claim that “Justin Trudeau has just made it illegal to promote the oil and gas industry.” Alberta Premier Danielle Smith likewise didn’t mince words when she labelled the bill “absurd authoritarian censorship” and made clear that the province would challenge the legislation by any legal means possible, including through the Alberta Sovereignty Act.

For the past decade, I’ve been studying the media efforts of pro-oil advocacy groups that claim grassroots character, influencing as they have a larger right-wing pro-oil movement whose stamp, for instance, was found all over the 2022 Freedom Convoy. The book that came out of this research, Petroturfing: Refining Canadian Oil through Social Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2024), examines how this movement took shape on social media in the 2010s through the adoption of social media strategies and rhetorics pioneered by environmental NGOs.

Proposing the term “petroturfing” to describe these efforts in a nod to the notion of “astroturfing,” or the fake grassroots modes of political advocacy and organizing pioneered by Big Tobacco, I argue that two key claims animate the broader petroturfing project: First, these campaigns, groups, and organizations claim personal and financial distance from the oil and gas industry or, at the least, some sort of loosely populist sentiment. Second, they claim that the oil and gas industry is marginalized and under threat by allegedly dominant environmentalist voices.

The disingenuous nature of these claims is cast into relief with a quick glance at the numbers: oil sands production has almost always broken annual production records and continues to do so even while its discursive life is challenged in popular media. The book’s account of the petroturfing project begins with the publication of Ezra Levant’s bestselling, pro-oil sands book Ethical Oil (2010) and ends, more or less, with the 2022 Freedom Convoy. As a whole, it suggests that the petroturfing project symbolically refines Canadian oil from dirty oil into an economically, socially, and environmentally progressive force by leveraging the affordances of social media. I have, in other words, been soaked in the very kinds of claims and narratives that these amendments to the Competition Act seek to disrupt or, indeed, eliminate.

A colleague of mine (Patrick McCurdy), who also studies pro-oil media and whose co-authored research has found that the Pathways Alliance engages in greenwashing, first alerted me to the Pathways Alliance statement. I think he and I agree on this: something big is happening in the present and future of environmental communication in Canada. It remains an open question whether the choice to pull content is some kind of performative posturing on the part of the Pathways Alliance and CAPP to fuel existing sentiments against the current federal government and to legitimate the perception that Justin Trudeau is a tyrant or is motivated by a genuine fear that their past claims could trigger these amendments, resulting in massive fines. Of course, their choice can be both at once and I suspect it is. The Pathways Alliance statement was quite clear in denying that pulling content is “related to our belief in the truth and accuracy of our environmental communications” and is instead “a direct consequence of the new legislation.” Using the language of “belief” here is significant, given that the bill in spirit seems to be precisely signaling that “belief” should no longer be the basis of communication about a given product’s benefit to the environment—science should. Phrases like “an adequate and proper test” and “internationally recognized methodology” tell us as much. Lisa Baiton, CAPP President and CEO, homes in on this aspect of the amendments in her media release, calling it “nebulous.”

These pro-oil demonstrators, protesting a 2018 bill that would regulate Canadian oil and gas, were among about 2,000 who rallied outside a downtown Calgary hotel where Justin Trudeau was to speak at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Perhaps the CEOs of CAPP, Pathways Alliance, and others should consult with their R&D departments to learn what “internationally recognized methodology” means. Rather than nebulous or vague, this is about as precise as it gets. Such methodologies are the basis of legitimate, peer-reviewed research and scholarship, including the research that oil and gas companies pursue often behind closed doors, leading to situations where, for instance, the fossil fuel industry knew of climate change as early as 1954 but kept this knowledge under wraps and actively sought to shape public opinion otherwise.

My view, however, is that the amendments and additions say more about attempts to use legislation to combat dis- and misinformation than they say about climate commitments or commitments to energy transition. After all, the same government that put this “anti-greenwashing rule” on the books also purchased and completed the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, effectively tripling its capacity while increasing the threats to Secwepemc territory and livelihood.

In Petroturfing, I caution against prioritizing discursive struggles over the oil sands that seek to disprove the claims of the oil and gas lobby or the petroturfing project, which I suggest feeds the current impasse surrounding energy transition and delays action on climate change, all while benefiting the agents, architects, and allies of Canada’s fossil economy. From a cynical perspective, and one I tend to share, these amendments, while interesting from a policy perspective, when placed next to the actions of the current federal government, reveal that the gap between sentiment and action—which must be eroded to achieve a just, desirable, and equitable transition—will remain.

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