Without concrete action, efforts to portray Canada as a clean energy superpower are likely to fail

In January 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed his fifth environment minister in five years. Peter Kent immediately declared that oil from Alberta’s oil sands was “ethical.” Echoing Ezra Levant’s argument that Canadian oil was ethical because proceeds strengthened Canadian democracy and society and did not support tyranny or injustice,1 Kent vowed to confront “the slander and disinformation of outright lies” about the oil sands.

Barely a month later, political turmoil in oil-producing countries in the Middle East and North Africa provided a boost to Levant’s argument. Defenders of the Canadian oil patch asked if foreign customers should buy oil from unstable countries like Libya with dictators like Muammar Gaddafi.

Yet as I finish this article, President Obama has illustrated the challenge Canada faces in developing and promoting its oil sands. Days after identifying Canada as one of the most important sources of secure and reliable oil (a message promoted by the Canadian government), Obama said that the potentially “destructive” nature of the tar sands (the less friendly descriptor used by environmental critics of the oil sands) had to be addressed before his administration would approve the Keystone XL pipeline to send Canadian crude oil to American refineries. Something is obviously not working as far as Canada’s energy and environmental reputation is concerned.

It’s not for lack of trying. The Conservative government has been trying to rebrand Canada’s image abroad by linking energy supplies and the ongoing extraction of resources to environmentalism and democratic ideals. The effort has been to deflect global attention away from the environmental consequences of oil sands activity in order to promote the development of the oil sands. However, without concrete actions that support the brand message, this is a risky strategy that could very well fail.

The oil sands and Canada’s environmental image

The oil sands account for 95 per cent of Canadian oil reserves, making Canada the second leading source of proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. They are expected to add $789 billion to the Canadian economy between 2000 and 2020.2

Not surprisingly, development of the oil sands has been a priority for the federal and Alberta governments. Canada has been pursuing foreign investment in the oil sands while also trying to develop markets by promising – notably to the Americans and the Chinese – that Canada can deliver secure and reliable oil. Describing the oil sands in their natural state as “nature’s biggest unusable oil spill,”3 Prime Minister Harper has compared their development to the building of the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China.

This is not the view generally held, however; indeed, the oil sands have created an image problem for Canada, bringing attention to this country’s poor environmental record. The Conference Board of Canada ranked Canada 15th out of 17 peer countries in its 2009 environmental performance report card, noting particularly poor performances in the areas of climate change, smog and waste generation. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise; by 2007, emissions were 34 per cent higher than Canada’s Kyoto target and 26 per cent higher than 1990 levels (as opposed to the promised 6 per cent decrease).4 With less than 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, Canada produces 2 per cent of global emissions. The accompanying figures summarize Canada’s performance in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.

The oil sands contribute to Canada’s worsening emissions record, producing 5 per cent of Canadian carbon emissions, a figure expected to rise to 16 per cent in the next decade. Indeed, according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), while emissions in other G8 countries fall, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase as a result of “an expanding exploitation of the tar sands.”5

Visual cues have helped environmentalists make their case against the oil sands. The 2008 deaths of 1,600 ducks that landed in oil sands tailing ponds, followed by the deaths of another 200 ducks in 2010, even made Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach speak out in frustration as he worried about the impact of these deaths on Alberta’s image.6

Environmentalists, supported by indigenous peoples and celebrities, have led the charge against the oil sands and Canada’s promotion of the industry. For example, high-profile Inuit leader Mary Simon spoke of “Canada’s shameful inaction on climate change,” setting out the facts and figures as well as the experience of how global warming is affecting her community.7 The networked structure of social movements today has made opposition to Canada’s oil sands policy a global exercise. A global solidarity network has teamed indigenous activists with, among others, British environmentalists, to raise international awareness of how the oil sands are affecting the lives of indigenous people and point out the links between the oil sands and global capital.

One tactic has consisted of targeting companies with investments in the oil sands by working with ethical investment campaigners to persuade shareholders to reconsider investments. Prominent retailers like Whole Foods markets have said that they do not want their suppliers to use energy from the oil sands, and Lush Cosmetics has mounted a major advertising campaign against the oil sands.8

Influential groups like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation draw much attention abroad and have forced Canada onto the defensive. The WWF released a study showing that Canada is doing the least of any G8 country to fight climate change.9 Meanwhile, Greenpeace argues that Canada has become a “global carbon bully.” Driven by its pursuit of revenue from the oil sands and spurred on by lobbyists, Greenpeace maintains, “Canada has actively fought standards to lower the carbon content of fuels, lobbied against U.S. legislation to lower emissions, muzzled federal scientists and obstructed international climate change negotiations.”10

Canada’s image in the global community has been sullied by high-profile critical documentaries with such titles as H2Oil, Dirty Oil and Tar Sands: Canada for Sale. Hollywood celebrities such as Neve Campbell and James Cameron11 and international journalists such as George Monbiot portray the oil sands as “Canada’s dirty secret” and argue that it is “blackening Canada’s name, with an image akin to Japan’s in whaling.”12

Governments have begun to respond to these concerns, and their responses portend serious consequences for the future of the oil sands. In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama continued his push to promote clean energy standards for U.S. electricity, and the state of California has enacted a “Low Carbon Fuel Standard” which could affect the export of oil sands oil. Meanwhile, the European Union is considering applying a “dirty fuel” label to Canadian oil derived from the oil sands.

These image problems have been compounded by the Harper government’s reluctance to commit to the provisions of the Kyoto Accord, a position it has tied to the contention that developing countries and emerging powers should no longer have special treatment under Kyoto. At a 2009 international environmental meeting, its position led to a walkout by the Group of 77 developing nations during a Canadian address.

At the two most recent international discussions of environmental agreements in the post−Kyoto Accord era (Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010), Canada’s record came under much scrutiny, and Canada came to be regarded as an obstacle to greater international collaboration on environmental measures. The “Fossil of the Year” title that environmental groups awarded to Canada four years running (2007−10) bears witness to Canada’s poor international reputation.

Criticism has also come from other governments. For example, the Danish Minister for Climate and Energy criticized Canadian inaction on lowering CO2 emissions, noting that it is difficult to convince Danish companies to accept reduction targets when Canadian competitors are not.13 This is the backdrop to the Canadian government’s effort to convince the global community that Canada is committed to sustainable development and the environmentally responsible exploitation of the oil sands.

The brand challenge

In March 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated, “With great energy power comes great environmental responsibility … Canada must not be merely an energy superpower, but a clean energy superpower.” The Prime Minister’s message aspired to a better harmony between economy and environment. Cabinet ministers − notably the ministers of environment, industry and natural resources − took the cue, emphasizing in their speeches a “balance” between energy, the environment and the economy as they heralded clean energy commitments and technological solutions to emissions problems.

The federal government has promoted this message abroad, emphasizing to American, Chinese and European audiences that the oil sands are being developed responsibly. For example, the Prime Minister told the Canadian-American Business Council in 2009 that Canada needs to work with the Americans to deliver significant and secure energy to the United States in the form of a plan linking Canadian and American programs for emissions reduction and the development of green technologies.

Of major concern for Canada was whether the Obama administration would approve the proposed $13 billion Keystone XL pipeline to transport crude from the oil sands to Texas. Two competing mindsets are influencing this decision (which has been delayed several times and is now only expected by the end of 2011): the Obama administration’s public advocacy of “clean energy” and the highly politicized American discourse on energy security epitomized by the Republican Party’s infamous slogan of “Drill, baby, drill!” President Obama’s identification of Canada in March 2011 as one of the most important, reliable and secure sources of oil for the United States was encouraging to Canada’s hopes.

Consequently, the Harper government has argued that Canadian climate change policy must match that of the United States and has promised that new regulations for more environmentally friendly exploitation of the oil sands will be produced. By emphasizing the need for coherent policy that allows both economies to prosper, the Conservatives are able to align themselves with a popular American president, whom Canadians not only admire but also see as “progressive” on the environment.14

Yet given congressional intransigence, the Canadian government can rest assured that American environmental standards will remain weak compared to those of other industrialized countries. And in reality, Obama has taken a more nuanced position. He has failed to clearly define “clean energy,” and while he has expressed public concern about emissions from the oil sands, he has held out hope for cross-border cooperation that benefits administrations on both sides. As he put it, “I think to the extent that Canada and the United States can collaborate on ways that we can sequester carbon, capture greenhouse gases before they are emitted into the atmosphere, that’s going to be good for everybody.”15

The federal government has relied extensively on this one technological innovation − carbon capture and storage (CCS) − as a sign of its commitment to responsible development of the oil sands. The Prime Minister stated in 2009 that CCS had “the potential to help us balance our need for energy, as our duty to protect the environment.” He even suggested that CCS might be able to eliminate half of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. With this optimistic forecast, the Prime Minister noted that “most of” the billion-dollar Clean Energy Fund would be put into CCS demonstration projects.

This public commitment to clean energy has been accompanied by a joint industry-government public relations campaign against opponents of the oil sands. In 2010, the Alberta government attacked environmental groups for their “propaganda campaigns,” complaining that it is being portrayed as uncaring about the environment. Syncrude Board Chair Marcel Coutu called the oil sands a “national treasure” and argued that Canadians do not show enough pride in the oil sands. Syncrude Board Chair Marcel Coutu called the oil sands a “national treasure” and argued that Canadians do not show enough pride in the oil sands. In response to negative publicity, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has launched a national advertising campaign aimed at countering the claims of environmentalists.16

Undermining the brand

To be successful, brands must live up to their claims. But has the federal government undertaken the actions necessary to live up to its self-described brand as an emerging clean energy superpower? Here the evidence diverges from the rhetoric.

Apart from its retreating from already low targets for greenhouse gas emissions, the federal government also moved responsibility for conducting major environmental reviews away from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the body created to do such reviews, to the National Energy Board, whose mandate is to promote the development of the energy sector. It also gave the environment minister more power to determine the scope of such assessments.

Moreover, the federal government committed only $1 billion over five years to the Clean Energy Fund in its 2009 budget, the bulk of which would go to CCS research. Yet many credible observers debunk the whole idea of CCS. It has been called “sheer folly” − an expensive, unproven technology that would produce as much emissions as it “captures,” undertaken at the expense of cheaper technologies that have less harmful effects on the environment.17

In its budget introduced just before it was defeated in March, the Harper government highlighted “Investing in a Cleaner Energy Economy.” However, the major investment was limited to a two-year, $100 million program for R&D and demonstration projects on clean energy and energy efficiency. Other initiatives included a one-year extension of the EcoEnergy Retrofit program (a popular program the Conservatives had planned to close) and the elimination of some subsidies promoting development of the oil sands. Meanwhile, Canadian investments in clean energy technologies are low, trailing spending in other countries. This translates into a missed opportunity to create up to 150,000 jobs.18

Finally, the federal government has opposed the idea of a carbon tax, which many analysts and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development say is an important measure for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In the lead-up to the 2008 federal election, Prime Minister Harper said that the Liberal Party’s proposed carbon tax (the “Green Shift”) was “crazy” and would “screw” the country, and his party ran ads saying it was a “tax on everything.”19 One result was that the Liberals wouldn’t touch the idea in the 2011 election campaign.

Rhetoric and reality

The goal of nation branding is to create an emotional connection between the source country and foreign audiences, making them more willing to invest in the source country. Messages that do not reflect reality are reduced to propaganda, and will not likely succeed.

In its efforts to brand itself to global audiences as a clean energy superpower, Canada has a long way to go. Much tougher environmental standards, combined with long-promised regulations on the oil sands industry, would improve Canada’s reputation, as would greater investment in clean technologies.

Industry and the federal and Alberta governments are losing the public relations battle because we are promised action but are left with little more than rhetoric. Indeed, the president of the Canadian Electricity Association stated, “The Prime Minister and the federal Cabinet have to figure out at some point that they just can’t say ‘clean energy superpower’ without having a series of policies and positions to back that up … So far, they’re not there.”20 And when governments do act, they receive intense criticism from industry, as happened with Alberta’s recent announcement that it would convert 20 per cent of oil sands land into conservation and recreation areas.

It is easier to attack one’s critics. Peter Kent recently complained of “the constant, critical refrain that this government has no environmental plan. Not only do we have one, we are one of the very few that does.” The reality, however, as an Ottawa Citizen editorial recently noted, is that Canada has “a government that talks publicly about the importance of tackling climate change while working feverishly in the background to undermine efforts by other countries,” including encouraging oil companies to lobby American politicians about the negative impact of legislation affecting the oil sands.21

Highlighting the “ethical” nature of Canadian energy may temporarily “change the channel” away from the environmentalists’ critique, but it will raise as many questions as it answers. Canada continues to import energy from countries such as Venezuela, where democratic practices have been questioned. Should this stop? Members of the Harper government once criticized China on human rights grounds, but now Canada is reaching out to China. In October 2010, Prime Minister Harper suggested that Canada could meet China’s growing energy demand. What explains this shift? Canadian corporations have billions of dollars invested in undemocratic countries. Should action be taken to discourage such investment?

In short, nation branding campaigns need to reflect a country’s reality to succeed. Canada may have the potential to become a clean producer of energy, but this would require a retooling of Canada’s policy and regulatory framework. The David Suzuki Foundation argues that if Canada adopted the environmental policies of the top three OECD countries, then Canada would lead the OECD in environmental performance.22 But this would require implementing politically and economically costly programs. Talk is a lot cheaper.


1 Ezra Levant, Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010).

2 James Cowan, “Oilsands under Attack,” Canadian Business, April 12, 2010. Available online at www.canadianbusiness.com

3 Richard Liebrecht, “Harper Taken to Task over Oil Sands Views,” Edmonton Sun, October 8, 2010.

4 Conference Board of Canada, How Canada Performs (Ottawa: Author, 2009); Thomas Gunton and K.S. Calbick, The Maple Leaf in the OECD (Vancouver: David Suzuki Foundation, 2010).

5 Cowan, “Oilsands under Attack”; Tiffany Crawford, “Oilsands Earns Canada Bottom Ranking,” Edmonton Journal, July 2, 2009.

6 “Oilsands Tailings Ponds Kill More Ducks,” CBC News, October 26, 2010. Available online at www.cbcnews.ca (accessed March 26, 2011).

7 Mary Simon, “Canada’s Shameful Inaction on Climate Change,” Toronto Star, July 10, 2009.

8 See www.lush.com/shop/tarsands

9 Crawford, “Oilsands Earns Canada Bottom Ranking.”

10 Greenpeace, Alberta Tar Sands a Major Climate and Economic Threat: Greenpeace Report (2009). Available online at www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/recent/tarsands_report (accessed September 16, 2009).

11 Environmentalists argued that the plot of Cameron’s blockbuster movie Avatar reflected the contemporary challenges indigenous peoples face from the impact of the oil sands on their lives.

12 Heather McRobie, “Canada’s Dirty Secret,” The Guardian (London), July 16, 2009; Ben Webster, “It’s a Dirty Business: The New Gold Rush That Is Blackening Canada’s Name,” The Times (London), November 4, 2009; George Monbiot, “Canada’s Image Lies in Tatters: It Is Now to Climate What Japan Is to Whaling,” The Guardian (London), November 30, 2009.

13 Gary Mason, “Denmark: Something’s Rotten in the State of Canada,” Toronto Globe and Mail, October 12, 2009, p. A7.

14 Bruce Anderson, “How Obama Shapes Our Environmental Outlook” (December 14, 2009). Available online at www.globeandmail.com (accessed December 14, 2009).

15 “Oil Sands Make U.S., Canada Ties Sticky,” MSNBC.com, September 16, 2009.

16 Alisha Morrissey, “Canadians Not Proud Enough of Tar Sands: Coutu,” St. John’s Telegram, January 15, 2010; www.capp.ca/oilsands

17 Peter Gorrie, “Climate Change ‘Solution’ a Fossil-Fuel Enabler,” Toronto Star, October 3, 2009; Kenneth P. Green, “Cash Sequestration,” National Post, September 29, 2009; Lauren Krugel, “Elements of Carbon Capture Established, but Cost and Scale Remain a Challenge,” Canadian Press, October 12, 2009; Jeffrey Simpson, “On a Cost Basis, Carbon-Capture Projects Are Madness,” Toronto Globe and Mail, October 20, 2009, p. A17; Nathan VanderKlippe, “Carbon Capture Plan ‘Sheer Folly,’” Toronto Globe and Mail, September 22, 2009.

18 Mike De Souza, “Canada Falls Behind in Green-Job Creation,” Ottawa Citizen, March 15, 2011, p. A3.

19 Peter O’Neil, “OECD Urges Nations to Embrace Carbon Tax,” Ottawa Citizen, September 19, 2009, p. A8; “Canadians Blind to Liberal ‘Green Shift,’ Poll Shows,” Ottawa Citizen, July 7, 2008.

20 Carl Meyer, “‘Clean Energy Superpower’ an Empty Buzzword, Say Insiders,” Embassy, September 22, 2010.

21 “Commitment Problems,” Ottawa Citizen, December 8, 2010.

22 Gunton and Calbick, The Maple Leaf in the OECD.