Australian petroleum lobby advertisement banned over ‘cleaner’ natural gas claim

A rare penalty for misleading environmental claims has seen a television commercial for Australia’s petroleum association cut from the airwaves.

An advertisement for Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) was banned because Australia's advertising watchdog determined that the claim that natural gas is '50% cleaner' than coal was not substantiated.
An advertisement for Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) was banned because Australia's advertising watchdog determined that the claim that natural gas is '50 per cent cleaner' was not substantiated. Image: APPEA

An advertisement for Australia’s fossil fuel producers lobby has been banned for misleading and unsubstantiated claims about the climate credentials of natural gas.

A television campaign that aired in June for the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) claimed that natural gas is “50 per cent cleaner” but did not clearly specify what it was cleaner than, according to the country’s advertising watchdog, which determined that the commercial breached the country’s advertising code for environmental claims. 

A series of commercials from APPEA positioned natural gas as a fuel that “keeps the country running” and promoted the various industries that the energy from burning gas powers, including healthcare and manufacturing. 

APPEA represents Australia’s upstream oil and gas industry and has more than 60 member companies that explore for and produce the country’s oil and gas resources.

In one of the advertisements, a worker wearing protective clothing says: “As Australia shuts down coal, gas is picking up the load”. Another worker later says, referring to gas: “It’s 50 per cent cleaner, so together with renewables it gets emissions down.”

We hope this is a turning point in preventing greenwashing by coal, oil and gas companies.

Belinda Noble, founder, Comms Declare

But the comparison with coal is not clearly made and the basis of the claim is not clear, according to a complaint made by law firm Environmental Defenders Office on behalf of non-profits Comms Declare and Lock the Gate.

“It is a blanket and misleading statement that gas is ‘green’, when in truth the exploration, extraction, transport, processing and logistics of gas are very damaging to the environment and emit a lot of greenhouse gas – especially methane,” read the complaint, which said the ad was a form of greenwashing.

“Yes, gas is scientifically slightly less bad that some old coal and oil energy sources, but a lot of assumptions are baked into that and to just say ‘50 per cent cleaner’ is unacceptable,” read the complaint.

The ad campaign also claimed that the more supply of gas there is, the less it costs, and said natural gas will “help keep Australia running as we transition to a cleaner future”.

Australia’s advertising watchdog upheld the complaint, marking a rare occasion in which an advertisement has been banned in Australia for making a misleading or unsubstantiated environmental claim.

APPEA said it disgreed with the verdict and stated that natural gas has “never been more important in our energy mix, in our economy, and in supporting greenhouse gas emissions reductions consistent with net-zero goals”.

The association said it would alter its campaign and remove the “50 per cent cleaner” claim. A shorter version of the advertisement can be viewed here: 

Commenting on the verdict, Belinda Noble, founder of Comms Declare, said there is a “growing realisation” in Australia that the country has fallen behind in the regulation of misleading green claims. The complaint against APPEA is only the fourth objection that has been upheld on environmental grounds by the Australian Association of National Advertisers since 2011.

“We hope this is a turning point in preventing greenwashing by coal, oil and gas companies,” she said.

“Gas is mainly methane which heats the atmosphere 84 times more than carbon dioxide over twenty years. Advertising gas as being somehow ‘clean’ or ‘green’ is not only inaccurate, but also immoral when global warming is causing record temperatures, death and destruction around the globe.”

Comms Declare created a parody ad of APPEA’s campaign to promote natural gas.

The ad ban comes as industry regulator Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has released updated advice on greenwashing and has said that misleading environmental claims are now a priority area for action. Ad Standards is conducting a review of its environmental claims code.

Meanwhile debate is rumbling over the role of natural gas in the transition to cleaner energy systems in Asia Pacific. Energy majors have labelled natural gas a critical “bridging fuel” in the transition to clean energy, but detractors argue that gas is now one of the biggest drivers of climate change, as production expands to replace coal.

Last month, oil and gas majors dominated the discourse at an energy event in Kuala Lumpur, defending plans to expand fossil fuel production amid an energy crunch fuelled by the Ukraine war. The event was held four months after United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres reiterated the call for all new oil and gas extraction to be stopped or risk missing the climate-critical global net-zero by 2050 emissions target.

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