Charlie Angus might mean well. But the premise of the NDP MP’s private member’s bill – which would ban advertising from fossil-fuel producers – is absurd.
It begins with the premise that targeting oil and natural-gas baddies can solve difficult environmental issues. And it is stunts like this that blight reasonable discussions about what to do about our deep entanglement with fossil fuels.
The bill, C-372 – introduced in the House of Commons last week – is highly unlikely to pass. But it’s getting attention for taking on Big Oil, and what Mr. Angus calls misleading advertising and promotion of fossil fuels in Canada.
The introduction of the bill states: “In the context of a climate emergency, fossil fuel advertising sends a confusing and contradictory message about the need to urgently end Canada’s reliance on fossil fuels.” The bill is modelled on what Canada did decades ago, when it fashioned what are some of the toughest antismoking rules in the world, including bans on tobacco advertising and sponsorship.
In an interview, Mr. Angus said he’s worried about a number of totally legitimate issues: A history of campaigns from international fossil-fuel producers that cast doubt on the science of global warming; the health effects of climate change; Canadian oil and gas workers being automated out of their jobs; recent years of forest fires that “scared the hell out of me. We still have parts of Alberta on fire this winter.”
The introduction of the bill has already done its job, attracting the ire of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, industry groups and a cohort of Westerners. This is exactly the controversy many politicians hope for.
Mr. Angus said his bill is about corporate advertising, and wouldn’t affect individuals or the industry, per se. The discussion of jail time in the legislation is “boilerplate,” he said. An oil chief executive could still write an op-ed.
But in his plan to ban all advertising from an entire sector, it’s also raised criticism from those who care about free speech. Imagine if Mr. Angus’s test was applied to Canadian sectors that consume, instead of produce, massive amounts of fossil fuels: travel, transport, home-building?
False or misleading advertising is already covered by the Competition Act. A case involving the Pathways Alliance group, and its campaign that promotes oil-sands producers’ plan to achieve net-zero emissions for its own operations by 2050, is already making its way through that process.
The bill from Mr. Angus, using a broad definition of what is “promotion,” would target anyone who talks about one type of fossil fuel being less harmful than other types. The clearest example of where this would be in discussion of whether natural gas produced here (or in the United States) can really displace emissions from coal plants in Asia, or Russian gas supplies to Europe.
The private member’s bill also targets those – in so broad a manner – who would say that fossil-fuel production can result in positive outcomes in relation to the environment, the health of Canadians, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, or the Canadian or global economy.
Discussing trade-offs like these is legitimate and necessary. Some First Nations benefit from the ability to be oil-sands contractors or to host an LNG export facility on their lands. And when it comes to the global economy, do Western countries want to buy oil only from OPEC or foreign state-owned producers in the future, or have supplies of our own?
The comparison to tobacco is especially superficial, however tempting it is. While close to 30 per cent of Canadian adults smoked 25 years ago, that figure is around 10 per cent now. Rules restricting tobacco advertising played a part in this; wouldn’t it be great, Mr. Angus argues, if we could replicate that to similarly cut fossil-fuel use?
But tobacco and fossil fuels are worlds apart. Smoking is way easier to quit than oil. The use of fossil fuels, in contrast to tobacco, is one of the major reasons our world exists as it does – think everything from food production to mobility.
So why does C-372 warrant any attention at all? Because it represents the assumption, held by some, that anyone who expresses support for the country being a producer of fossil fuels is a bad actor.
With energy products representing more than one-quarter of Canada’s total exports – the vast majority of that being crude oil and bitumen – and all the jobs and wealth wrapped up in that industry, that assumption is condemning a big group of us.
If there’s a reckless flip-side to politicians who don’t bring anything of substance to the climate policy discussion, it’s short-sighted efforts like Mr. Angus’s bill.