Feds say industry organized PR strategy for oilsands

Published by Postmedia News on Tuesday Aug 9 2011

OTTAWA – Natural Resources Canada says a powerful oil and gas industry lobby group was responsible for organizing a key meeting and some controversial messaging, in partnership with government, to polish the image of Alberta’s oilsands industry.

In newly released emails and internal records, department officials said the strategy to “turn up the volume” and get “the right attitude” on oilsands advocacy was actually proposed by high-ranking officials from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers during a March 2010 meeting involving senior federal and Alberta government officials, as well CEOs from oil and gas companies.

“The meeting was organized by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP),” wrote Natural Resources Canada media relations manager Paul Duchesne in an email sent on March 15, 2011, that was supposed to be delivered to Postmedia News. “We suggest you contact CAPP for more information.”

The email was written in response to media questions about the 2010 meeting and a summary prepared by the federal Natural Resources Department, which highlighted arguments in favour of boosting communications efforts to promote the oilsands.

But it took several months, and a formal request under access to information legislation, which allows the public to ask for copies of government records after paying a $5 fee, for the department to partially release its answers in nearly 200 pages of records with some sections blacked out.

“The meeting was organized by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). We suggest you contact CAPP for more information.”

The records revealed a flurry of emails sent to the highest levels of government, including the office of Industry Minister Christian Paradis, at the time in charge of Natural Resources, from bureaucrats seeking approval to answer the questions raised by Postmedia News and to publicly explain that the meeting was organized by the industry association.

“I will advise and copy you on my response,” wrote Paradis’ director of communications, Richard Walker, in a March 23, 2011 email responding to a department spokesman asking whether it would be able to answer questions from the media about the oilsands advocacy strategy.

The department did not answer subsequent requests from Postmedia News in the following weeks, which coincided with the federal election campaign. But the emails suggest its bureaucrats requested advice from several senior government officials, including the deputy minister, as well as to at least one bureaucrat working for the Privy Council Office, considered to be the administrative arm of the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In one email, the natural resources department specifically proposed that its media response highlight that the meeting was an “industry-led” initiative. This was to address questions about why it had discussed improving discussions with environmentalists by engaging with “less strident” groups.

“This reference is to an unattributed comment that would have been made in the context of a meeting, led by CAPP, involving a number of officials from industry,” wrote Kathleen Smith, a media relations officer, in another email dated March 15, 2011.

In the email, Smith also asked whether it was possible to “check with (the) sector” (a division in the federal department) regarding its description of the meeting.

Travis Davies, a spokesman for the industry association said Tuesday that it organized the 2010 meeting at a regularly scheduled industry event, in response to a request from government for “an opportunity to speak with oilsands leaders.” He also said that CAPP was not consulted by the government regarding its answers to media questions.

Graham Saul, the executive director of Climate Action Network, a coalition of environment, labour union and faith-based groups, said he was baffled to hear that the government was suggesting an industry association should answer questions about its own federal records and documents at Natural Resources Canada.

“Is the government refusing to talk about its position coming out of secret meetings with the oil industry?” asked Saul. “It’s just so frustrating because it’s so clear that what we’re seeing is an international energy policy (in Canada) based on promoting the short-term interests of the oil companies, rather than the long-term interests of Canadians and the fight against climate change and the promotion of clean energy.”

The revelations also coincide with the recent release of an Environment Canada report, quietly posted online, that said the oilsands sector is projected to triple its carbon dioxide pollution over the next decade if companies do not improve their environmental performance. This would virtually cancel actions of other Canadian industries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

An independent analysis of the new data by the Pembina Institute, an environmental research organization, concluded that the future oilsands emissions would make the sector’s pollution levels greater than the carbon footprint of the entire province of Quebec.

Scientists and governments from around the world have agreed that humans must dramatically reduce consumption of fossil fuels and the amount of heat- trapping gases in the atmosphere to prevent dramatic changes in the climate and the planet’s ecosystems that are already underway.

Although Environment Canada had some of the information regarding the rising oilsands emissions available in May, it deliberately left it out of a government inventory of greenhouse gas emissions required by the United Nations, that was published that month, Postmedia News reported in the spring.

A communications risk assessment prepared by Natural Resources Canada warned that there was “moderate concern” over the release of records about the meeting revealing that the department was “leading an oilsands engagement strategy” with other government departments in partnership with the Alberta government and industry.

The advocacy strategy to boost the oilsands industry’s image was actively promoted by Bruce Carson, a former senior adviser to Harper, in response to campaigns labelling the Canadian fuel as “dirty oil,” and foreign government policies aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Carson participated in several meetings with government and industry officials in 2009 and 2010 in his former role as executive director of the Canada School of Energy and Environment, a think-tank based at the University of Calgary that received a $15-million grant announced in the 2007 federal budget.

But Carson, who was still advising Harper’s government in 2009, left this position at the school last spring following a controversy over alleged lobbying activities.

Current Natural Resources Canada Minister Joe Oliver and former minister Paradis did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But Duchesne, the department spokesman, later said in an email that it follows a government of Canada communications policy co-ordinated by the Privy Council Office.

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