The Web They Weave – the arachnids – the Goliaths of economic and political power.
There are two main obstacles to reducing GHG emissions and transitioning to renewable forms of energy – but not money or technology as often thought:
- The existing, massive, physical infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction and distribution in networks of pipelines owned mostly by multinational corporations.
- The sociocultural networks of influence and persuasion among the elites in the organizations of our political economy that create and manage that infrastructure.
Involved is political and corporate capture – broadly shared views and interests among corporate and political office holders – and ubiquitous networks of mutual assistance. These networks result in government subsidies and programs like tax-breaks that de-risk large corporate projects using the public purse, as well as lax regulatory standards against air, soil and water pollution, and little public accountability. Webs are spun by greenwashing, astroturfing (setting up fake environmental advocacy groups), and advertising/propaganda to convince customers and voters – and one another – that they act in the public interest rather than the interests of that physical and sociocultural infrastructure of business as usual.
Enbridge – Ontario’s Pipeline Goliath
Through a huge distribution and service pipeline network, Enbridge Gas Inc., the largest gas utility in North America, delivers oil and natural gas to Ontario from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the United States. Natural gas moves through service pipelines to 3.8 million Ontario customers, including 75% of households. Some of Enbridge’s industrial customers use natural gas to generate electricity, and the current Government of Ontario has directed the nominally independent, Independent Electricity System Operator, IESO, to expand gas-fired electricity. But the main natural gas use is for space and water heating and cooling in buildings, which produces 24% of Ontario’s GHG emissions.
Although stating it is committed to ‘net zero by 2050’, Enbridge has major growth plans in Ontario. It has applied to the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) for a rate increase to have customers help fund a multi-billion dollar expansion of its service network in rural and northern Ontario. The resulting decades-long lock-in to natural gas would ensure that Ontario and Canada will not meet 2030 or 2050 emissions reduction targets. The OEB, another nominally independent government agency, is expected to decide on the project in November. The application follows a commitment by the Ford government to subsidize new gas hook-ups in the province by approximately $26,000 each, estimated to cost taxpayers a total of $234 million through 2025. New customers would be triple dipped – paying for their own hook-up, higher gas rates (already up one to two hundred percent in the last couple of years) and through their taxes for this new government subsidy. Ouch!
More evidence of the advantage of being the Goliath: Enbridge has just been favoured again. At the behest of the Ontario government, on November 25, 2022, an agreement between Natural Resources Canada and Enbridge Gas was announced for the co-delivery of the Canada Greener Homes Grant, through a single window to all eligible Ontarians via Enbridge Gas’s enhanced Home Efficiency Rebate Plus (HER+) program. How many electric as opposed to natural gas heat pumps do you think will be installed? But look at how efficiently the program will be delivered! What is the goal here???
Goliaths don’t work for peanuts.
Kate Aronoff, writing in the New Republic, states that oil companies are reluctant to invest in renewables because wind and solar aren’t as profitable as dirtier forms of energy. BP CEO Bernard Looney made his position clear: “We’re going to be driven by value…And if we see value, we’ll do it. If we don’t, we won’t.” In their lexicon, value = profit.
Large multinational corporations prefer large capital investment projects, with large government subsidies tode-risk them. Effectively, we the public end up underwriting multinational corporations’ profits and perpetuate fossil energy as the basis of our economy.
Webs of Persuasion – Advertising, Greenwashing, Lobbying, etc.
It’s common in advertising for businesses to claim that that their products or services are essential to your happiness and well-being, even when companies know the opposite is true – from the purveyors of tobacco to oil and gas. From time to time, Competition Bureaus even investigate.
Greenwashing is a variant of advertising – one that promotes the business itself by claiming it supports a public good, while still prioritizing business profits. The term greenwashing was coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld in a 1986 essay about the hotel industry’s practice of placing notices in bedrooms promoting reuse of towels to “save the environment”.
In a Globe and Mail op ed., Catherine McKenna, former Canadian Minister of the Environment and Climate Change and now Chair of the UN’s High-Level Expert Group on Net-Zero Commitments of Non-State Entities, just wrote: “Here in Canada, oil and gas companies, the single largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions, need to step up and take meaningful climate action now. But instead, we have the Pathways Alliance – which represents major oil sands companies – taking out full-page newspaper advertisements claiming they are on their way to net-zero despite all evidence to the contrary.”
A recent InfluenceMap research briefing, “The Canadian Oil and Gas Industry and Climate Policy”, examines the climate change positions of the two pipeline Goliaths, Enbridge and TCL; the four major tar sands producers, Cenovus, Suncor, Canadian Natural Resources and Imperial Oil, and their industry mouthpiece, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Their conclusion: “despite widespread use of net zero commitments and narratives, the industry remains strategically opposed to science-based policy to deliver net zero targets in line with limiting warming to 1.5°C.”
Pathways Alliance was established in 2021 by the six largest multinational – not Canadian – oil sands producers in Canada. It is a greenwashing, advertising, and lobbying powerhouse of foreign influence in Canada. Its grandiose commitment to working on climate change and net-zero emissions by 2050 while producing more of the ‘responsible’ fossil energy the world needs elicits high marks for hypocrisy. They advocate for fossil fuel expansion and subsidies and oppose the federal government’s plan to cap and regulate emissions. Greenpeace Canada launched a complaint against the oil sands alliance for misleading advertising. Their research shows that Pathways Alliance ran television ads during the FIFA World Cup, the Australian Open and the 2023 Super Bowl, and they have been one of the biggest advertisers on Facebook and Instagram. They invested $325,025 from October 2022 to January 2023 just in ads on Meta!
A more vulgar term for the greenwashing by the fossil fuel industry is bull*hit. And in some cases that is really what is involved. Natural gas companies like Enbridge maintain that their use of organic biogas (methane from living as opposed to fossilized organisms), from waste such as manure, makes them purveyors of “Renewable Natural Gas” (RNG). By some highly dubious alchemy, change to a live from a dead methane source makes it ‘clean’ and helps meet their ‘net-zero emissions by 2050’ pledge. Here’s a short critique of RNG greenwashing.
Of course, it’s not just large multinational corporations that engage in greenwashing. Governments tout plansto reduce GHG gas emissions but then produce legal and regulatory policies that undermine or ensure the plans are not met. The classic is the federal government’s ‘balancing’ of the environment (a price on carbon) with the economy (buying and expanding the TMX). It’s well established in Ontario too as attested by the Auditor General. Fortunately, a group of young Ontarians is suing. See Ecojustice member Simone Willy’s take on government ‘double-talk’.
Then there is lobbying day in, day out, by the industry, with its rich return in subsidies. Currently, Canada’s Ethics Commissioner is proposing alarming changes that will weaken federal lobbying regulations. So much so that lawyers and professors are joining DemocracyWatch.ca’s campaign against them.
In its worst manifestation, governments just invite industry to write the regulations for their industry. The federalgovernment has just had the finance industry write the regulations to prevent greenwashing by financial institutions. This back-scratching, revolving-door, join-the-table/board networking among our political and economic elites may seem all very efficient value creation/economic growth to them – just using available infrastructure and their connections – no conspiracy here. Yet, this is what is driving the crises in climate, biodiversity, and inequality that now critically imperil life on earth. Fake it ‘Til You Make It Won’t Cut It with Climate.
(With thanks to OCEC Connections newsletter, March 2023, where portions of the post first appeared.)
Gail Greer is a Sociologist, former personal investment manager, a member of SCAN!’s Education and Campaign and Platform Committees, and a member of OCEC Connections editorial board.
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