Bill C-59 and Its Consequences

Canada's Parliament
Saffron Blaze, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If a prize existed for dryness in legislative long titles, Bill C-59 — An Act to implement certain provisions of the fall economic statement tabled in Parliament on November 21, 2023 and certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 28, 2023 — would surely claim it. Yet when the Bill cleared the Senate on Wednesday, the consequences could not have been more dramatic.


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Omnibus Bill

C-59 is an omnibus bill, laden with tax-related provisions. You would have thought the Clean Technology Investment Tax Credit would have grabbed all the buzz, and in time perhaps it will have the most telling consequences. But the headliner in the short term was an amendment to the Competition Act, which requires businesses to support their environmental claims with “adequate and proper substantiation.”

The dryness of the title extends into the legislation, and reading the Bill is a tough slog. I won’t claim to have completed it. But I think I spotted the section that caused all the excitement: 

ensuring that representations of a product’s benefits for protecting or restoring the environment must be supported by adequate and proper tests and that representations of a business or business activity for protecting or restoring the environment must be supported by adequate and proper substantiation

Bill C-59 An Act to implement certain provisions of the fall economic statement tabled in Parliament on November 21, 2023 and certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 28, 2023

From the following reference to “administrative monetary penalties,” you might guess that this amendment could hit some people where they live.

Reactions to Bill C-59

Once passed, Bill C-59 sparked an immediate retreat — like Napoleon pulling out of Russia, only much faster. Within hours, Pathways Alliance scrubbed its digital comms. All that remained of the website was a statement decrying “significant uncertainty for Canadian companies that want to communicate publicly about the work they are doing to improve their environmental performance, including to address climate change.”

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“Significant uncertainty” — that’s the kind of thing you say when you’re trying not to make a situation worse than it already is. This quick retreat is an admission of wrongdoing. The Pathways Alliance execs likely knew all along that their claims were deceptive. Threatened with financial penalties, the Alliance immediately retracted them.

Other industry voices followed suit. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers claimed C-59 “effectively muzzles” Canadian businesses and declared itself “extremely disappointed.” Cenovus Energy, a member of Pathways Alliance, issued a statement lamenting the Bill’s “serious threat to freedom of communication” and “significant uncertainty and risk.”

Alberta Government Reaction to Bill C-59

The Alberta government also reacted sharply. In a press release, Premier Danielle Smith, Minister of Energy and Minerals Brian Jean and Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz referred to the Bill as “absurd authoritarian censorship,” falsely claiming it would require businesses to “comply with the narrative of eco-extremists like Minister Stephen Guilbeault and Jagmeet Singh.” Actually it would do nothing of the sort. Businesses can put forth any narrative they like — as long as they buttress it with verifiable facts.

The shrillness and exaggeration in the Alberta government’s press release is enough to make a person despair for our society. The Bill does not require oil and gas producers to hew to Steven Guilbeault’s narrative. (For that matter, when we compare Guilbeault’s rhetoric to that of other public figures, like U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, his positions aren’t even extreme.) Nor is there even a grudging statement of appreciation for the Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) ITC, which the industry has long sought.

Anti-Greenwashing Provision

Taken to its logical extreme, the anti-greenwashing provision in this Bill is another nail in the coffin of climate denial. A kind of soft denialism has become fashionable in recent years, where oil and gas boosters concede the truth of global warming while proposing false solutions for it. This Bill will make it much harder to propose those false solutions.

Bill C-59 says that climate change — and everything else we might say about it — requires verifiable assertions, not unsubstantiated opinions. Which is funny, when you think about it. The foundation of fossil energy is empiricism, a respect for the laws of nature. We can’t really say that we accept these laws only when it’s convenient for us to do so. Nature is either real, or it isn’t. Or as the astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it:

What’s more, if climate change is a topic for empirical study, so is climate change mitigation. When the Pathways Alliance claimed its “foundational project” would sequester 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2, you could compare that number to the life cycle emissions of Alberta’s fossil fuel production to see if 1.1 billion tonnes was a significant amount in the context of our fossil fuel production. That’s what I did. 

I found that, if we used the production levels envisioned in the “Canada net-zero” scenario put forth by the Canada Energy Regulator in its Canada’s Energy Future 2023 report, the Pathways Alliance project would capture just 1 per cent of the life cycle emissions anticipated for Alberta fossil fuels in 2030, the year the Pathways Alliance project was expected to become operational. Overall, the Alliance project would capture less than 2.3 per cent of the life cycle emissions of Alberta fuels produced between 2023 and 2050. That’s a long way from net zero.

Personally, I feel vindicated by the anti-greenwashing provision in Bill C-59. Since the beginning, I’ve done my best to ground this blog in the facts, citing all my sources and linking to them. Shout-out to my friends at Citizens‘ Climate Lobby Canada for upholding this same standard.

It’s easier to talk about Alberta’s fossil fuel industry this factual way. It’s also much less inflammatory. The economics, emissions profile, and ethical implications of the industry all lead to the conclusion that it’s antiquated and unsustainable. When you consider the massive public subsidies that prop up this business, along with the unfunded liabilities that taxpayers are likely to shoulder, it’s not even clear that the industry is profitable for Albertans and Canadians.

Bill C-59 received royal assent on June 20. It has already had significant consequences. Its long-term implications are also great. When you consider the suffocating fog of climate disinformation and bad faith we have laboured under for years, the modest anti-greenwashing amendments to the Competition Act have the dazzling clarity of sunshine.

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