Alberta government calls bill about backing up environmental claims an 'agenda to create chaos'

Alberta's government says it is "actively exploring" the use of every legal option, including a constitutional challenge or the use of the Alberta Sovereignty Act, to push back against federal legislation that will soon become law.

That legislation is Bill C-59, which would require companies to provide evidence to back up their environmental claims. It is currently awaiting royal assent.

As of Thursday, it was also what led the Pathways Alliance, a consortium of Canada's largest oilsands companies, to remove all its content from its website, social media and other public communications.

On its website, Pathways cites amendments to the Competition Act that would create "significant uncertainty" for Canadian companies that "want to communicate publicly about the work they are doing to improve their environmental performance."

"With uncertainty on how the new law will be interpreted and applied, any clarity the Competition Bureau can provide through specific guidance may help direct our communications approach in the future," the website reads.

"For now, we have removed content from our website, social media and other public communications."

Pathways Alliance CEO Kendall Dilling is interviewed at the World Petroleum Congress  in Calgary, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
The Pathways Alliance group of oilsands companies says it has removed its website content over uncertainty around an upcoming law. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean and Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz released a joint statement in response to the bill.

They wrote that it appeared to be "part of an agenda to create chaos and uncertainty for the purpose of phasing out the energy industry altogether."

"Ironically, this kind of absurd authoritarian censorship will only work to stifle many billions in investments in emissions reducing technologies — the very technologies the world needs to reduce emissions while avoiding energy poverty for billions around the world," the statement reads in part.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to news of Pathways Alliance removing content from its website and social media during a press conference held Thursday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to news of Pathways Alliance removing content from its website and social media during a press conference held Thursday. (CBC)

Asked about the move by reporters on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that in a democracy, it's important that "people build their positions and their decisions around facts."

"Now, freedom of expression, freedom of people to share their points of view, is extraordinarily important. It's one of the foundations of a free and open democracy," Trudeau said.

"But we need to make sure that people are debating and discussing and basing their worldview on things that are anchored in truth and reality."

Pathways Alliance members react

The Pathways Alliance — which includes Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Cenovus Energy Inc., ConocoPhillips Canada, Imperial Oil Ltd., MEG Energy Corp. and Suncor Energy Inc. — has publicly stated its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands to net-zero by 2050.

Members of Pathways have expressed uncertainty around the omnibus bill. In a statement on its website, Canadian Natural Resources wrote that the legislation wouldn't change the company's commitment to the environment.

Imperial Oil, another member of the consortium, displayed a disclaimer on its news page as of Thursday morning.

"Due to changes in the Competition Act, this archived information is provided solely for historical information and reference purposes. This information does not constitute an active representation of Imperial," the disclaimer reads.

"Imperial fully disclaims any liability for the use of such information, and undertakes no obligation to update such information except as required by applicable law."

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an industry group, wrote in a statement Thursday that it would also reduce the amount of information it makes available on its website and other digital platforms, until further guidance was made available.

Canadian oil and gas companies facing a federally imposed emissions cap will cut their production rather than invest in emissions-reducing carbon capture and storage technology, a new report by Deloitte says.
In the last year, Canadian green groups have lodged at least four formal complaints with the federal Competition Bureau alleging greenwashing or false environmental claims by fossil fuel companies or banks. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Keith Brooks, programs director with the advocacy group Environmental Defence, characterized Pathways' removal of content as being essentially "an admission of guilt."

"If you want to be advertising and touting some green credentials, then those credentials need to be substantiated. You need to have some evidence to show that this is actually what's happening. You can't just be talking about it," Brooks said.

The clean energy think-tank Pembina Institute, meanwhile, wrote that its research and analysis had been identifying "significant gaps" between the emissions reduction promises the Pathways Alliance first made in 2021 and their actions to deliver those promises.

"It remains the case that the group has yet to make any final investment decisions on carbon capture projects, or on other technologies, that would meaningfully reduce their emissions in line with their previously stated 2030 and 2050 targets — despite the existence of significant public subsidies to support such investments," reads a statement from MC Bouchard, oil and gas program director at the Pembina Institute.

Pathways Alliance issued a news release on Thursday afternoon attributed to the presidents of the group's oilsands producers and to Kendall Dilling, president of the Pathways Alliance.

The amendments could mean that certain public statements would violate the Competition Act, the group said.

"[That would] subject [a business] to significant financial penalties unless the business can adequately and properly substantiate their claims according to 'internationally recognized methodology,' which may or may not exist," the statement reads.

"Creating a public disclosure standard that is so vague as to lack meaning and that relies on undefined 'internationally recognized methodology' opens the door for frivolous litigation, particularly by private entities who will now be empowered to directly enforce this new provision of the Competition Act.

"This represents a serious threat to freedom of communication."

Calgary Chamber criticizes legislation

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce wrote in a statement on Thursday that the amendments in Bill C-59 would limit disclosure of climate targets and ambitions to investors and financial markets.

"The Investment Tax Credits and other long-overdue measures included in Bill C-59 are unfortunately obfuscated by other aspects of the bill — including the so-called 'greenwashing' amendments introduced last-minute and without consultation — casting a shroud over what could have been a good news story," wrote Chamber president Deborah Yedlin, in a statement.

Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist and a professor at the University of Alberta, agreed there is uncertainty at play here.

"What the [legislation] basically says is, in broad terms, any claim that you make with respect to the impact on the environment of your product, that's subject to you having the burden of proof to show … that that claim is true," Leach said.

"When you think about something like an oil and gas product, particularly oilsands … are we talking about production emissions? Are we talking about consumption emissions? Are we talking about net impacts on global climate? Are we talking about impacts on Canada's emissions?"

Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist and a professor at the University of Alberta, said new legislation has created uncertainty. (Submitted by Andrew Leach)
Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist and a professor at the University of Alberta, said new legislation has created uncertainty. (Submitted by Andrew Leach)

For that reason, it's wise for Pathways to pull its information down in the interim, in Leach's view.

"It's going to be a double-edged sword. And I'm sure they're well aware of this, that by pulling the information down, the way that that's going to be interpreted is, that was false advertising. And I don't think that's right," Leach said.

Richard Masson is an executive fellow at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy and chair of the World Petroleum Council-Canada, which hosted the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary last summer.

He said it makes sense to pull the information down, given all the lawyers that sit in corporate offices in downtown Calgary.

"Unfortunately, I don't think this is helping Canada move forward with climate action. And it really is a distraction," he said. "What we need to do is create alignment amongst the parties, so that we can actually get investment predictions done, and this isn't doing it at all. So it's very disappointing."

The Pathways Alliance, whose membership consists of Canada's six largest oilsands companies, has previously run ads across the country promoting its ambition to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands production by 2050.

Some environmental groups have said these ads are misleading, as the Pathways Alliance has not yet made a final investment decision on its proposed $16.5-billion carbon capture and storage network.