Inside the Pathways Alliance’s three-step greenwashing plan

John Woodside
Artwork by Ata Ojani / Canada's National Observer

Jun. 5, 2024

Since its launch in 2021, the Pathways Alliance has used a three-step greenwashing strategy to weaken and delay climate measures, according to new research from a leading international think tank.

According to U.K.-based InfluenceMap, the Pathways Alliance, which represents Canada’s largest fossil fuel companies responsible for 95 per cent of oilsands production, appears to use this three-step plan to keep profit margins of its members healthy as the global energy transition off fossil fuels unfolds.

Here’s how the researchers say it works. Step one: Convince the public the oil sands companies are committed to climate action. Step two: Promote carbon capture technology as the solution and secure government funding for it. Step three: Advocate against other emission reduction policies.


Since it was formed, the Pathways Alliance has spent nearly $1 million on advertising on Facebook and Instagram alone.

InfluenceMap identified 114 ads on Facebook in 2023 that racked up more than 40 million impressions and cost the Pathways Alliance just over $460,000. The ads focus on the alliance’s stated commitment to lower emissions using carbon capture technology to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century.


As previously reported by Canada’s National Observer, the Pathways Alliance splashy advertising campaign called "Let's clear the air," also included buying commercial time at premier sporting events like the FIFA World Cup, Australian Open, and 2023 Super Bowl.

Since March alone, the Pathways Alliance has recorded $100,000 worth of advertising on Facebook and Instagram. But the ultimate audience is policymakers in Ottawa, the researchers note.

“Pathways’ messaging attempts to convince policymakers on the 'climate benefits' of Canadian oil production, using claims around the positive contribution of [the] sector to tackling climate change that appears to contradict science-based guidance, all while advocating for greater production,” InfluenceMap notes.

The InfluenceMap study, published Wednesday, comes a day before the CEOs of Pathways members Suncor, Cenovus and Imperial Oil are scheduled to testify to the House of Commons environment committee about their companies efforts to cut emissions.

CAPP realized "their pre-2021 strategy of basically aligning with the Conservative Party and provincial governments against the federal government wasn't working... So the Pathways group broke off from CAPP and developed this greenwashing brand." - X

The study dug into how the Pathways Alliance has lobbied on federal policies like the proposed cap on oil and gas emissions, methane regulations, clean electricity regulations and carbon tax amendments. The think tank found the alliance was against every measure.

In fact, the Pathways Alliance has “led an active campaign against the oil and gas emissions cap, with its direct advocacy on the policy growing more negative over the years,” InfluenceMap found.

The Pathways Alliance did not return a request for comment.

InfluenceMap identified Pathways’ lobbying and advertising strategy after combing through its communications with policymakers and spending on social media. The think tank also looked at how the alliance’s members plan to increase fossil fuel production contrary to what climate scientists say is required to limit the impacts of climate change.

The alliance was formed three years ago this month, when Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus, Imperial Oil, MEG Energy and Suncor announced they were joining forces under the Pathways Alliance banner. The group was pushing a simple message: they would reach net-zero emissions from their operations by 2050 as part of the country’s goal to be carbon neutral under the Paris Agreement. ConocoPhillips Canada joined later that year, with its president Bij Agarwal saying “we are fully committed to putting our ESG leadership into action by investing in the advancement of transformational technologies.”

Three years later, no investment decisions have been made. The alliance has made it clear it wants taxpayers to cover the majority of the costs associated with a $16.5 billion carbon capture megaproject. That carbon capture project involves connecting 14 oil sands projects in Alberta near Fort McMurray to a storage hub near Cold Lake using a 400 km pipeline network.

Already the federal government is offering a 50 per cent tax credit the Pathways Alliance members could use to slash their costs significantly, but according to an alliance official that’s still not enough. At a senate committee meeting last month, Pathways Alliance vice-president, and former senior advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mark Cameron said the group is looking to recover at least two-thirds of its costs.

Offering to cover 50 per cent of carbon capture costs “doesn’t stack up to what the U.S., the U.K., and Norway have,” Cameron said. “In those jurisdictions, there are more generous financial incentives for carbon capture.”

Carbon capture technology does not have a promising track record. According to a 2022 study from the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), underperforming carbon capture projects “considerably outnumber” successful ones.

“Many international bodies and national governments are relying on carbon capture in the fossil fuel sector to get to net zero, and it simply won’t work,” said IEEFA’s Bruce Robertson at the time.

Typically, net-zero emissions refers to balancing any emissions created with an equal amount of emission reductions. But that’s not what the Pathways Alliance means when it uses the term. When it says net-zero, it is only referring to the emissions from its operations, not the majority of emissions that come from fossil fuels when they’re ultimately burned. Because oil sands companies are currently planning to increase oil and gas production, that means planet-heating greenhouse gases will continue to rise even if the companies successfully deploy carbon capture technology.

“What is the definition of net zero? We think we can get to net zero from our operations, but we would still be producing oil in 2050 at the end of the day,” Cameron told the senate committee. “There are some definitions of net zero that would say there should be no oil production by 2050 or only 20 million barrels per day... If that’s the definition of net zero, then it’s not a definition that would work for our industry.”

Greenpeace Canada senior strategist Keith Stewart told Canada’s National Observer no independent analysts would agree to a definition of net-zero that ignores the majority of emissions, and that the Pathways Alliance has simply invented their own self-serving definition.

In Stewart’s view, the Pathways strategy to acknowledge climate change while asking for government handouts, is an evolution of the fossil fuel industry’s outward climate denial and overt delay tactics.

“What we're seeing now is [the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)] realizing their pre-2021 strategy of basically aligning with the Conservative Party and provincial governments against the federal government wasn't working,” Stewart said. “So the Pathways group broke off from CAPP and developed this greenwashing brand.

“Rather than fighting all climate policy, what they're doing is saying we will do whatever you the taxpayer will pay for, while still trying to weaken climate policy as much as possible.”

The oil and gas sector is responsible for more than a third of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions, with the oil sands specifically representing a large and growing source. A 2020 report from Environment and Climate Change Canada found that from 1990 to 2018, oil sands emissions grew 456 per cent, compared to conventional oil production emissions increasing only 24 per cent.

[​Top: Artwork by Ata Ojani / Canada's National Observer]