Desperate to get the public in its corner as it wrestles with its own imminent decline, Canada’s fossil industry has come up with a novel marketing message: tar sands/oil sands make beautiful (or, at least, non-ugly) things to play with.
“Alberta’s major oil sands producers want you to look at a barrel of bitumen and see a pool noodle,” writes The Narwhal, reporting on a leaked promotional video produced by the Oil Sands Pathway Alliance. It’s part of a wider campaign build on this tagline: “Energy. Beautifully Designed.”
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The video has since been yanked, but not before The Narwhal caught some choice snippets.
“Producing barrels of oil and making Styrofoam chips out of the resulting carbon. That’s beautiful. Producing oil, and from the resulting carbon making pool noodles that kids can float on. Beautiful.”
Another segment, “developing microchips out of carbon capture for refined oil is beautiful,” names the “pathway” through which the companies hope to keep their product alive in a net-zero world: That is, carbon capture and storage.
The campaign was prepared for a group composed of Suncor Energy, Imperial, Oil Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., MEG Energy, ConocoPhillips and Cenovus Energy, together responsible for about 95% of tar sands/oil sands production, the news story states.
But to truly make good on its efforts to push ahead with its own version of “net-zero by 2050,” the industry will need to get both carbon capture and utilization technologies up and running. A dangerous rupture in a CO2 pipeline last year foreshadows the risks associated with carbon storage. As for repurposing it into useful objects, that’s still a lot of carbon pie-in-the-sky. “The campaign is vague about the details of converting carbon to pool noodles,” The Narwhal notes.
Greenpeace Canada Senior Energy Strategist Keith Stewart, who pointed The Narwhal to the video, said the attempt to change the channel on the industry is hardly a new endeavour. “I think this will be the fifth or sixth attempt to rebrand the oil sands,” he said.
Such rebranding efforts are hardly confined to Canada’s oil producers. A new study out of Brown University points to the concept of “clean coal”, generated by a PR firm in 2014 on behalf of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private sector coal company. Pressure to rebrand fell hard on Peabody in the wake of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, writes the Washington Post.
Then there was PR firm Ogilvy’s “Possibilities Everywhere” campaign for BP. Created in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, the campaign “highlighted BP’s investment in solar energy, despite the company’s much larger investment in oil and gas at the time.”
A broader, but central, finding of the Brown study, just published in the journal Climatic Change, is the extent to which PR actions to further fossil interests and undermine climate action have flown beneath the radar of those fighting to hold the industry accountable.
While the role of conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute is “not really news anymore” in the U.S., environmental sociologist and study co-author Robert Brulle urged greater attention to PR firms’ actions in the sector. He said 95% of fossils’ rebranding efforts are managed by expert consultants.
In Canada, The Narwhal says Big Oil is ramping up its PR because the writing is everywhere on the wall. From the International Energy Agency’s recent World Energy Outlook, which identified high-cost, high-emission resources like Canada’s tar sands/oil sands as the most likely to tank first, to Ottawa’s new plan to cap oil and gas emissions, the sector is in big trouble.
Sketching the size of the emissions pit the companies have dug for themselves, The Narwhal writes that the tar sands/oil sands produced 83 megatonnes of emissions in 2019, an amount “equivalent to the yearly energy use of almost 37 million homes.”
And that number doesn’t account for emissions produced during refining and combustion.
But even if the Oilsands Pathway Alliance’s campaign is Grade A greenwash, that doesn’t mean it won’t sway people to a kinder view of the industry, The Narwhal warns. A 2011 analysis of a tar sands/oil sands campaign found a strong willingness across the political spectrum in Canada to accept claims that the sector is a “responsive industry” which can develop its resource “in a responsible way.”
But we are a long way from 2011, and public willingness to swallow fossil PR with statements like “All across our country, beauty surrounds us, wherever we are” and “We need beauty in our lives, but we also need energy” may have diminished.
Pointing to the visceral and real impacts of climate change that Canadians are experiencing—including B.C.’s devastating wildfires and flooding—Greenpeace’s Stewart told The Narwhal that 2021 likely finds Canadians in a very different mood from a decade ago.
I nearly fainted when I first saw a bucket of bitumen. It was like looking into the abyss.