Canada’s $207,000 Oil Sands Ad: Putting a Price on Deception

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Globe and Mail

Canada’s $207,000 Oil Sands Ad: Putting a Price on Deception

The ad in The New Yorker is pretty, if not quite arresting. The full-page photo on the inside back cover – prime real estate in the United States’ leading upmarket magazine – features a pristine river meandering through a lush mountain valley, untouched by humanity. It is not a tourism ad. It is designed to convince influential Americans that the Keystone XL pipeline is environmentally safe, even desirable.

What is clever about the ad is not the photo; it is the headline and the succinct lines of copy beneath it. They are slick pieces of propaganda – misleading without being outright lies. Of course, advertising is all about propaganda. But this ad is unconscionable because you, the Canadian taxpayer, paid for it. The rate for a full-page ad in that location, according to Condé Nast, publisher of The New Yorker, is $207,000 (U.S.).

The ad appeared in the April 14 issue and was sponsored by GoWithCanada.ca, the federal government site that is trying to convince the skeptical that the Alberta oil sands – known as the tar sands to non-Canadians – and the export pipelines that would allow the megaproject to thrive for decades are a “secure, responsible source of energy for the global market” (“Keystone” does not appear in the ad).

Read the ad quickly and you might be inclined to take a sympathetic view. But read each line with a critical eye and you would think the opposite.

Let’s start with the headline.

“America and Canada have the same greenhouse gas reduction targets”: True. The goal for both countries is a 17-per-cent reduction in national greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 2005’s level. What the ad doesn’t tell you is that the figure is a big downgrade from the previous target of 20 per cent by the same date. That target was set in Canada’s Kyoto accord commitment. Canada bailed out of the accord in 2011, the only signatory country to do so.

The line is misleading by omission. While the 17-per-cent target is intact, the chances of it being achieved are close to zero; even Environment Canada admits so. That’s because oil sands production is soaring. Greenhouse gas output reductions elsewhere in Canada, thanks largely to deindustrialization in Ontario and the closing of its coal-burning electricity plants, are being offset by increases from the oil and gas industry, which is dominated by the oil sands (note that federal regulations had nothing to do with Ontario’s falling emissions).

The latest Environment Canada report on greenhouse gases, covering the 1990-2012 period, says oil and gas production has replaced the transportation sector as the largest generator of greenhouse gases. Based on Environment Canada’s projections, the oil sands alone will emit close to 130 megatonnes of gases a year by 2030 (one megatonne equals one million tonnes). That’s an increase of about 250 per cent from today’s level.

“Canada’s oil sands operate in one of the most stringent regulatory environments.” Again, true, but note the use of “most.” That’s a pretty low hurdle. So Canada is better than Nigeria, Russia or China? Big deal. If our regulations were as good as Germany’s or Scandinavia’s, you can bet the ad writers would have told you.

Also, note the disconnect between this sentence and the previous one. The previous sentence is about greenhouse gases; this one is about “regulatory environments,” which may or may not be about greenhouse gases. The writers might be referring to regulations on sulphur emissions or refrigerants like Freon, for all the reader knows.

“Canada continues to use innovation and technology to reduce emissions.” This line is so misleading that it borders on outright falsehood. Emissions “intensity” – the emissions produced per barrel of oil – is indeed coming down as energy-saving technology is developed. But the oil sands’ overall emissions are climbing relentlessly as the developments expand. The health of the planet does not depend on less emissions intensity. It depends on less emissions output, which is not happening.

“Canadian pipelines are the environmentally responsible choice to meet America’s oil energy needs.” Two points here. If the Keystone XL pipeline is built, some of the Alberta crude that wends its way to the U.S. Gulf coast will be exported as refined products to foreign markets. If the United States couldn’t live without Canadian oil, the exports wouldn’t happen. So America is not as needy as the ad would suggest, especially since it’s swimming in shale oil.

The second point is that there is nothing “environmentally responsible” about building new pipelines that would allow a huge expansion of the Alberta oil sands. More pipelines, more oil, more greenhouse gases. If Canada were responsible, it would encourage less oil use, not more. And if it were responsible to taxpayers, it wouldn’t blow small fortunes on deceptive ads.

Eric Reguly

Eric Reguly is the European Business Correspondent for the Globe and Mail

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