Governments working with oil execs to curb oilsands criticism, documents show

Published by Postmedia News on Tuesday Mar 15 2011

OTTAWA – Senior federal and Alberta government officials are working hand-in-hand with a task force of oil and gas CEOs to “turn up the volume” on communications tactics to fight criticism about the industry’s environmental record, newly released federal documents have revealed.

The briefing notes from Natural Resources Canada, obtained by Postmedia News, highlight the role of the committee that sought input from a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a strategy designed at “upping their game” against criticism from other countries, as well as from Canadians in Ontario and Quebec.

One of the meetings – held on March 16, 2010, following an annual gathering in Alberta of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) – included Bruce Carson, who had left Harper’s office one year earlier, as well as senior Alberta government officials and industry stakeholders.

“The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a proposal that CAPP had for the oilsands CEO task force on ‘upping their game’ for oilsands outreach and communications as part of a renewed strategy,” said one of the briefing notes drafted by Paul Khanna, a federal policy adviser on oilsands and energy security.

“The approach would not just ‘turn up the volume’ on the existing approach – it would change tact and address perceptions by showing that the issues are being addressed and we have the right attitude.”

“The approach would not just ‘turn up the volume’ on the existing approach – it would change tact and address perceptions by showing that the issues are being addressed and we have the right attitude.”

The Harper government has pledged to crack down on industrial pollution from sectors such as the oilsands, but has delayed action several times over the past five years.

In an interview, Carson, who is now the executive director of the Canada School of Energy and Environment, a think-tank that brings together academics from three Alberta universities, said that the federal government was particularly concerned “at that time that oilsands communications wasn’t being handled as well as it could have been.”

But he said that the representatives at the meeting discussed both the idea of improving communications as well as environmental performance.

“You can communicate all you want, but if you have nothing to communicate, you’re not going to go anywhere, so the idea was (that) we had to really up the environmental game,” he said. “The other part of it, to be fair, was trying to establish some sort of protocol to deal with the attacks that were coming on a fairly regular basis.”

Khanna’s meeting summary, released to Climate Action Network Canada following an access-to-information request, also revealed that the industry and government group discussed engaging “less strident” environmental groups to get involved in their dialogue.

“Our priorities have been the U.S., Europe and Canada – we need to get out to more Canadians in Ontario and Quebec,” wrote Khanna, summarizing the position of the department’s deputy minister, Cassie Doyle. “There is a commitment from government on this for the longer term as this is an issue for both government and industry.”

Revelations about a major communications strategy involving Canadian diplomats, the Alberta government, senior officials from both Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada, as well as industry, were first reported last November by Postmedia News. At the time, federal documents and emails released through access-to-information requests revealed a plan to “kill” foreign environmental regulations and ensure that “the oil keeps a-flowing” from Alberta.

Briefing notes from the Natural Resources department also stressed the importance of improving its communications strategy through measures such as responding to questions from journalists within a matter of hours and generating at least one positive news story per week.

A spokeswoman from Natural Resources said the department was not immediately able to provide a comment on the content of the latest documents.

Meantime, Carson said he no longer has any ties to any government strategy or the Prime Minister’s Office, but that in his new role, he recently completed chairing a series of dialogue meeting groups in various North American cities that brought together business and community leaders with oil-industry executives.

He said the group discussions have been helpful at addressing concerns of the people who participated and that his school, which received a $15-million research grant from the Harper government in 2007, would soon be producing its report on the exercise.

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