Oil Sands Newest PR Push Doomed to Fail – Again


The recently launched Astroturf platform AlbertaIsEnergy.ca is yet another faulty step by the captains of the Alberta oil and gas industry – people more interested in ill-advised public relations campaigns than in coming to grips with the challenges facing their industry.

AlbertaIsEnergy.ca is the website and foundational platform of a new PR push, launched last week by a group of industry associations closely tied to Alberta oil and gas. The campaign was launched with a Calgary Chamber of Commerce speech by Dave Collyer, the President of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

Let me concede this right off the bat: the executives who control CAPP have every right to launch PR campaigns. They have a responsibility to their members – even to their members shareholders and employees – to make their point of view known in the community. But they also have a responsibility to do so in a transparent and forthright fashion.

And they seem to be coming up critically short of that responsibility in the way they have crafted this round of advertising and social media manipulation.

The first bit of evidence is available on the AlbertaIsEnergy.ca website. In the “About Us” page, the campaign funders describe themselves like this:

We are bakers, mechanics, sales people, store owners, real estate agents, rig workers, engineers, bankers, truckers and more. We are the people that keep Alberta moving.”

That sounds wonderful. It sounds like this is a true, grassroots organization of everyday folks just trying to add a little common sense into the conversation.

But that’s not who is behind this campaign.

The actual list appears later, and there is nary a baker, a mechanic, a sales clerk nor a store owner anywhere to be seen. Here’ the list: of organizations behind the webpage:

* Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

* Canadian Energy Pipeline Association

* Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors

* Small Explorers and Producers Association of Canada (SEPAC)

* Petroleum Services Association of Canada

* Calgary Chamber of Commerce

* Canadian Association of Geophysical Contractors

* Alberta Enterprise Group

* Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters

These are the most powerful organizations in the province of Alberta – abetted by one of the nation’s most powerful manufacturers’ clubs. Together, they have huge budgets for advertising and public relations and direct access to government through lobbyists and association spokespeople.

Why would people this powerful need to pretend to speak on behalf of bakers and sales clerks? That, of course, is a rhetorical question. Polls consistently show that industry associations are among the least trusted of Canadian information sources.

They have appropriated the voice of the common man because industry associations aren’t credible when they speak in their own voice.

And no wonder.

One of the “value added” bits released with the PR campaign was a 15-minute video that you can find on the CAPP website. It’s a big budget celebration of all that is good about the tar sands – and a gauzy curtain obscuring all that is bad. For example, at one point, Dr. Eddy Issaacs, executive director of the Alberta Energy Resources Institute, says,

We certainly have seen a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the last 10 years. The number is around a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

That, however, is a complete fantasy.

While the tar sands producers are proud – perhaps justifiably – that they have reduced the amount of GHGs produced PER BARREL OF OIL, their actual emissions have skyrocketed in the last 10 years. The tar sands is the biggest point source of new GHG emissions in the country – and the fastest growing source over all. It is a huge part of the reason why Canadian emissions have climbed more than 25 per cent since 1990, rather than going down by six per cent as we promised in the Kyoto Protocol.

In his own speech, Dave Collyer also had some clangers. For example, he said,

A recent Canadian Energy Research Institute study points out that each dollar invested in the oil and gas industry turns into more than three dollars of total economic activity for Canada. That’s a very good return on investment.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to assess how they came to that figure? Because “economic activity” can be a cover for many things. Just as the totals for “Gross Domestic Product” can go up to reflect the increased spending caused by a devastating hurricane, the economic activity generated by the oil and gas industry could include the hospital visits by asthma sufferers – by the people in downstream First Nations communities whose cancer rates have skyrocketed since tar sands development began.

Collyer complains that his industry has been getting a bad rap: “Some of our detractors make a point of telling only part of the story: descriptions of vast tailings ponds fail to acknowledge that they, like oil sands mining areas, will by law be reclaimed.” This would be easier to accept if the reclamation was actually happening. Instead, as reported here by the Pembina Institute

“Of the 600 square kilometres of land disturbed by oil sands mining operations, only 1.04 square kilometres is government certified as reclaimed.”

So, today, we have tailings ponds than you can see from space. We have tar sand companies in court trying to defend themselves against charges of killing 1,600 birds in those ponds and failing to report the deaths – and trying to withhold information from that trial. Yet, Mr. Collyer feels it’s appropriate to criticize the media for “telling only part of the story.” Collyer goes on:

“Characterizations of oil sands extraction as the most carbon-intensive oil production process on earth ignore that CO2 emissions from Canada’s oil sands account for just 1/1000th of total global emissions, or that emissions from many other crude oil products sources are comparable to those from oil sands crude on a full life cycle basis.”

This is tantamount to saying that we should feel good about throwing our garbage out the window of our car because it accounts for a very small percentage of the garbage dumped on the highway each year.

You might just as easily ask, why should any country, anywhere in the world, take its environmental responsibilities seriously when these leading Canadians disavow any responsibility whatever. One of the biggest problems with this particular PR push is its lack of originality: there are now a bevy of these organizations, acting like the amplifiers in an echo chamber, repeating and repeating a series of suspect messages.

There is the Alberta Enterprise Group. There is the flashy industry-funded website celebrating Canada’s Oil Sands. There is the In Situ Oil Sands Alliance. And there are the actual industry sites which, while acknowledging their self-interest, still repeat – extensively and expensively – the messaging. Take, for example, the Oil Sands Developers Group.

In short, there is a critical mass of uncritical websites, promoting a rosy view of an industry that refuses to come to grips with its own environmental record and, in the worst cases, actually invests in denial of its role or climate change. In light of all of the foregoing, it was interesting to see a story in the Montreal Gazette last week quoting Clive Mather, former CEO of Shell Canada. Mather said:

“We have not done a good job in the oilsands, either in environmental performance or in communication. And we’ve got a big problem. It’s not life-threatening, but it could be.”

The most insightful part of that comment comes in the order in which he put the concerns: performance first, communication second. If the industry really wants to be taken seriously, it needs to work first on its performance. And then, rather than falsely claiming the voice of third parties to sing praise to industry, they should actually find credible third parties who will look critically at their operation and vouch for them – or condemn them, as circumstances might periodically require.

That, from a PR perspective, is ultimately the worse thing about this most recent campaign. Like so many before, it won’t work. All the goodwill it might have generated was dashed when, the day after the splashy launch, newspapers started reporting on a fresh batch of animal deaths caused by tar sands development.

As I argued in my book, Do the Right Thing, the rules for getting a good reputation a simple.

1. Do the Right Thing

2. Be Seen to be Doing the Right Thing

3. Don’t Get #1 and #2 Mixed Up. That – #3 – us what’s happening here.

The industry associations are working hard at being seen to be doing the right thing, but the evidence of actual performance keeps tripping them up. Until they turn their process around, it will never change.

Jim Hoggan is co-founder of DeSmogBlog and President of the Vancouver public relations firm, Hoggan & Associates.

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