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Greenwashing at the Games

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Issue: 64 Section: Business Geography: Canada Vancouver, Alberta Topics: environment, tar sands, 2010 Olympics

January 6, 2010

Greenwashing at the Games

Heavy polluters look lighter as Olympic sponsors

by Chris Arsenault

Petro-Canada (now owned by Suncor) and the Royal Bank of Canada, both Olympic sponsors, are among the largest players in tar sands mining. Photo: Dru Oja Jay

VANCOUVER—As the debate about global warming heated up on the road to climate talks in Copenhagen, companies with investments in Alberta’s tar sands were scrambling to clean up their image as dirty oil producers.

Sponsoring the 2010 Olympics—frequently proclaiming themselves the "Green Games"—has become a convenient branding tool for companies profiting from the increasingly controversial tar sands, according to a University of Toronto professor who has written several books on the Olympics.

“Big corporations can milk that green image, and they have an excellent venue to do so with the Games because there is so much world attention,” said Professor Emeritus Helen Lenskyj.

Petro-Canada, which recently merged with Suncor to create a tar sands giant, is one of only six national partners sponsoring the Games. After expressing interest in an interview, Petro-Canada spokesperson Dany Laferriere refused to answer questions from The Dominion about his company’s Olympic sponsorship.

Becoming a national partner cost Petro-Canada $62.5 million, but there is a payoff, according to Lenskyj. “I think companies have a fair amount of success in greenwashing, with light green corporate environmentalism,” she told The Dominion in a phone interview.

Companies such as Petro-Canada need all the greenwashing they can get. The Alberta tar sands has the highest carbon footprint of any commercial oil project on the planet, according a recent report written by award-winning business reporter Andrew Nikiforuk. If the world’s largest energy project continues on its current growth path, the tar sands alone will produce more greenhouse gas emissions than Ireland, Austria or Portugal by 2020.

“Petro-Canada has been involved with the Olympics for a long time, before it merged with Suncor,” said Harjap Grewal, a member of the Olympics Resistance Network. Petro-Canada sponsored the 1988 torch relay for the Calgary Winter Games.

The Lubicon Cree, an Indigenous nation still fighting for a Treaty recognition, protested the 1988 torch relay with a campaign called “Shame the Flame,” accusing Petro-Canada of stealing their land rights and resources, according to Lenskyj.

Today, Native rights activist Mike Mercredi accuses companies such as Suncor of committing a “slow industrial genocide” by poisoning the water supply of Fort Chipewyan, a native community downstream from the tar sands.

“Around 11 million liters of toxic chemicals, including carcinogens and other deadly poisons, are leaking into groundwater and the Athabasca and poisoning entire communities,” said a Greenpeace representative in a press release.

In 1988, Lubicon protesters and their allies were banned from Olympic venues and public spaces at the University of Calgary after protesting Petro-Canada. A similar scenario may occur in Vancouver, where the University of British Columbia is taking a prominent role in the Games, to the chagrin of some student activists.

The Royal Bank of Canada, another national Olympic partner, is the prime financier of the tar sands. Canada’s largest bank directly funds fossil fuel extraction with $15.9 billion per year, creating 198 million tonnes of climate changing carbon dioxide emissions, according to a 2008 report from Rainforest Action Network.

Promoters of the "Green Games" are not talking about the tar sands, however. The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) touts that some rain water from Richmond’s ice-skating rink, a prime venue, will be pumped into the building’s toilets and that waste wood from constructing the Whistler Creekside development will be chipped and reused on site.

“Organizers trot out a list of simple things [that seem green] for people who don’t know the difference between dark green and light green environmentalism,” said Lenskyj.

“The Vancouver Winter Games will be featuring more than just Gold, Silver and Bronze in 2010. Green will also be very much part of the mix,” explains General Motors, another national Olympic partner, on its website. The auto giant promises that 30 per cent of its Olympic fleet will be hybrids.

But activists have the power to turn Olympic greenwashing on its head, according to Grewal.

“Most of the world is aware that the development model practiced by these companies is causing the climate crisis,” he said. “The fact that they are pretending to be green gives activists a chance to highlight their actual policies.”

Chris Arsenault is the author of Blowback: A Canadian History of Agent Orange. He is currently writing a history of sabotage in the oil patch.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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