A group of doctors and nurses has filed a complaint against the Canadian Gas Association alleging it ran a “false and misleading” advertising campaign that touted gas as an "eco-friendly" fuel.
The 47-page application for inquiry, filed with Canada’s Competition Bureau Sept. 27, targets CGA's ad campaign “Fuelling Canada” for describing Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) as an “affordable” and “clean” energy.
As the “voice of Canada’s natural gas,” the industry group’s members include Fortis, Enbridge and TC Energy — some of the largest gas utility and pipeline companies across Canada.
“The fossil fuel industry had evidence about how fossil fuel use is driving climate change. Their initial campaign was to try to convince consumers climate change didn't exist,” said Dr. Melissa Lem, a Vancouver-based physician and one of six people who made the complaint.
“Now that we have incontrovertible evidence that climate change is happening — with the wildfires and floods and the storms — now they're shifting to the strategy to greenwash, to convince us that it's not so bad, and in fact, it's a greener alternative.”
Other applicants in the complaint include Dr. Ulrike Meyer, a family doctor in Dawson Creek, B.C.; Jacqueline Avanthay Strus, a registered nurse and president of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment; Dr. Genevieve Ferdais, a family physician in Montreal; and Melissa Daniels, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
Should the Competition Bureau find the campaign indeed misled Canadians, the six applicants are asking the independent law enforcement agency — set up to protect and promote competitive business practices — to impose a $10-million fine and force the CGA to retract the claims made in its ads.
The complaint lists several advertisements CGA placed across social media, on its own website, and in a national newspaper.
A spokesperson for the CGA declined to comment, stating the Competition Bureau had not sent the group any information regarding the claims.
A ‘clean’ gas that damages climate and human health?
In its request to investigate the CGA advertising campaign, the six complainants question how a product can be eco-friendly while at the same time damaging the world’s climate and threatening human health.
The complaint draws on a number of scientific studies showing how natural gas can negatively impact people’s health — from the extraction process to its combustion on a kitchen stove.
Indoors, research has suggested combusting liquefied natural gas as a cooking fuel at home increases the chance children will have asthma by 42 per cent. Other studies have found cooking with gas is comparable to living with a smoker when it comes to the chance of a child developing asthma.
“Even when the stoves are off, they leak pollutants into the air like benzene, like formaldehyde that can also have negative effects on people’s health,” said Lem, adding women and people with lower incomes tend to be most exposed.
Often described by advocates as a “bridge fuel” to wean the world off coal and oil, LNG produces about half the carbon emissions at the point of combustion than coal.
The B.C. government has cited that fact in its decision to back the construction of the LNG Canada terminal, a major gas processing plant in Kitimat, and a pipeline to feed it with fuel from fracked gas fields in the province’s northeast.
Unlike gasoline or oil, however, LNG can inadvertently vent into the surrounding environment without combusting.
“As a doctor in the fracking region of northeast B.C. that witnesses high rates of illness in my practice, I feel compelled to inform Canadians about the health risks of gas,” said Meyer in a statement.
Once in the atmosphere, the fuel — largely made of methane — becomes a greenhouse gas so powerful that in the 20 years after it’s released is 85 times more potent in its ability to warm the planet than carbon dioxide.
Methane emissions have steadily risen across the planet since 2007. By 2020, nearly 7.5 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas output came from fugitive methane emissions in the oil and gas sector, according to a national inventory.
But those numbers could be way off, according to one recent report cited in the complaint.
It found errors in the way fugitive methane emissions are being tracked and suggests current estimates are under-reported and should be over 90 per cent higher.
The cost of gas
The complaint to the Competition Bureau also alleges claims natural gas is “naturally affordable” are misleading and false.
In one piece of sponsored content in the Globe and Mail, the ad states natural gas is the “smart choice” for new homeowners and on average “cheaper than any other home heating source.”
The application to investigate CGA's advertising campaign counters those claims with a 2022 study from Natural Resources Canada that showed homes with natural gas furnaces in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick produced more emissions and are more expensive to operate than electric heat pumps.
In some parts of Canada where gas is cheapest, the NRCan report notes mixed gas furnace and electric heating remain the most affordable option.
But Lem, who also serves as president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), says that misses the long-term costs of opting for a natural gas hookup.
"Because of price volatility down the road, and because the world is moving away from fossil fuels, in the future, these people will be locked into higher prices for their energy because they will have installed that gas furnace,” Lem said.
Health-care workers escalate attack on fossil fuel ads
This isn’t the first time Lem and other health-care workers have targeted the oil and gas industry for allegedly 'greenwashing' their products.
In June, CAPE’s members were among 700,000 Canadian health workers who, through professional or non-profit organizations, called on the federal government to install a tobacco-style ban on fossil fuel advertising.
Their open letter to several federal ministers called for an end to “fossil fuel misinformation” that “obstructs climate action.”
In August 2021, CAPE also erected a billboard near the entrance to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal in Delta, B.C., targeting BC Ferries for burning LNG and therefore threatening human health and the world’s climate system.
But the latest complaint to the Competition Bureau represents a significant escalation in their campaign against the fossil fuel industry’s advertising practices.
In challenging the legitimacy of the “Fuelling Canada” campaign before Canada’s advertising watchdog, the six applicants are testing just how far the federal government will go to regulate greenwashing.
Leah Temper, director of CAPE’s Fossil Fuel Ads Make Us Sick campaign and one of the complainants, says the “Fuelling Canada” is just one of several disinformation campaigns waged by members of the Canadian Gas Association.
“They are happening now in real-time,” said Temper, pointing to FortisBC’s campaign to promote renewable natural gas — and spur municipalities to continue new gas hook-ups — while it only makes up one per cent of total supply.
“In many cases, the damage is already done.”
Call to bolster watchdog powers
Temper says the complaint process could take the Competition Bureau more than a year to investigate.
In the meantime, the six complainants — backed by CAPE — are also calling on the federal government to bolster its own regulatory framework to combat greenwashing.
Temper says a public consultation process to review the Competition Act — the law governing the Competition Bureau — is set to open this fall.
“It kind of opens up the possibility of tackling greenwashing in our laws,” says Temper.
Several European countries have already worked to close loopholes around the practice, something the bureau has described as a range of tactics — from claims, adjectives, colours and symbols — used to create an impression that a product or service is ‘greener’ than it really is.
Advertising watchdogs in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have already targeted false advertising produced by companies claiming their products or operations are carbon neutral.
And starting Jan. 1, 2023, no company in France will be able to advertise a product as “carbon neutral” without being able to prove it, Radio France Internationale has reported.
Any environmental claim a company makes must be accompanied by data detailing a product’s environmental footprint through its entire lifecycle, from manufacture to disposal or recycling.
That information, along with how the company plans to avoid, reduce or compensate for its emissions, must also be available to consumers through a QR code on the company’s website.
While ads for natural gas are still allowed, new rules set to go into effect next June could lead to fines of between €20,000 and €100,000.
Temper says those experiences could go a long way in informing bolstered regulations in Canada.
“We’re seeing this sort of fossil fuel disinformation everywhere [and] we’re making this one complaint to bring it to the attention of people and the government,” said Temper.
“But there’s a lot of possibilities to be proactive.”
Competition Bureau flexes against greenwashing
Targeting greenwashing wouldn’t be new for the Competition Bureau.
Following a global report in January that found 40 per cent of companies make misleading environmental claims, the bureau warned Canadians to be on the lookout for the practice.
“If a company claims a product or service is ‘green,’ take a moment to reflect on that claim,” said the bureau in a statement at the time.
The bureau has had success in the past. In one victory against greenwashing earlier this year, the consumer watchdog reached an agreement with Keurig Canada to pay a $3-million penalty after it made false and misleading environmental claims around its coffee pods.
In addition to the $3-million penalty, Keurig Canada was forced to pay for the cost of the bureau’s $85,000 investigation and donate $800,000 to a Canadian environmental charity.
The company is no longer permitted to make the bogus claims on its packaging, online or in news media.
Regulating fossil fuel advertising, however, would be a sea change for the bureau. Last April, it received an application from Indigenous leaders and environmentalists calling for RBC to end its financing of fossil fuels and stop “deceiving the public.”
At the time, RBC spokesperson Rafael Ruffolo said the bank "strongly disagrees with the allegations" and believes the complaint to be unfounded.
But for Lem, the latest application for inquiry against the Canadian Gas Association has a good chance of succeeding. A win, she said, would set a “massive” precedent.
“It would show the fossil fuel industry that they can't continue to mislead consumers,” she said. “It's been happening for decades. And it needs to stop now.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Leah Temper's comments on gas utility companies' promotion of renewable natural gas (RNG). While not criticizing RNG itself, she described it as a product used to "greenwash" traditional natural gas, which still makes up most 99 per cent of supply in places like British Columbia.