Image via Wikipedia
Big Business and environmental activists square off over the oil sands. Has the truth been caught in the crossfire? This article appears in the November issue of Alberta Venture.By Peter McKenzie-Brown
It has been a year in which Alberta’s oil sands have gotten attention for all the wrong reasons, itsl environmental record under attack from seemingly every possible direction. In addition to the usual rabble of environmental organizations and activists, the oil sands have been the subject of consumer campaigns from communities and corporations south of the border, each claiming to be greener than the next. Worse still, there’s no reason to believe the war of words will die down anytime soon between non-government organizations and crusading retailers on one side and their targets in industry and government on the other.
Early last summer, the small city of Bellingham, Washington, passed a resolution saying the city would boycott fuels derived from Alberta bitumen. As it ended, Walgreen – a large American retailer – did the same. These were just the latest of many efforts over a number of years to stop or slow down oil sand development by boycotting fuels that come from the oil sands. Although these campaigns got a lot of press, they were small potatoes in the big scheme of things.
For example, the US Congress has already passed a law banning some government agencies from directly promoting energy projects that will emit greater greenhouse-gas emissions over their entire life cycle than conventional oil. US legislation from 2007 prevents some federal agencies from entering into fuel contracts that encourage unconventional energy development. And California regulations require fuel suppliers to reduce the emissions from the fuel they sell – and to account for those emissions right back to the original source of production, including emissions in Alberta.
Returning to the small potatoes, a particularly robust attack recently came from Lush Cosmetics – a UK-based franchise which, according to its website, “offers over 300 luxurious, ethical and indulgent bath and beauty products made by hand with fresh, organic ingredients.” In July, the company’s North American operations took on the oil sands.
According to Bruce Anderson, an Ottawa-based senior associate with Harris/Decima Research and a senior advisor to NATIONAL Public Relations, this was part of the company’s effort “to present its own brand credentials to the marketplace.” Lush has embraced a series of environmental issues – for example, they also ran a short campaign on sealing. “What is remarkable about (these campaigns) is that they are less about the specific issue than about Lush as a brand.”
Prepared by an American advertising firm, the company’s website video describes the oil sands as “the largest and most destructive project on Planet Earth” – a “toxic sacrifice zone the size of England.” “The tar sands suck water, suck money, suck energy,” it continues. “The tar sands poison water, poison wildlife, poison forests. The tar sands destroy coastal cities. The tar sands destroy Canada’s rep(utation). The tar sands kill native people. The tar sands kill old people. The tar sands kill young people.” The culprits, the video explains, include big oil, big banks and the politicians in bed with them. The company’s preferred solution is to “Shut the f*cker down.”
Not surprisingly, this incendiary attack attracted the attention of representatives from government and industry. In a statement, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) president Dave Collyer said “activities like this protest blur the lines between fact and fiction and add nothing to the serious dialogue occurring among reasonable people seeking solutions to our energy challenges.”
Alberta cabinet minister Iris Evans called the company’s North American head office in Vancouver to straighten out CEO Mark Wolverton on the facts of the matter. The soap company then put out a news release saying that “Minister Evans acknowledged that today’s industry has the technology to pull oil from the tar sands without creating toxic tailings ponds yet continues to issue permits for development that include new tailing pond projects.”
The Lush Cosmetics campaign illustrates the action/reaction nature of the public relations battles that the oilsands tend to provoke, but it also underscores the dilemma the industry is facing. “The oilsands campaigners are looking for situations in which corporations are facing some kind of reputation risk,” according to Bruce Anderson. “What I have found is that companies want to lighten their environmental footprints, like consumers do, and they do regard their reputations carefully. But at the same time they need to make information-based and practical decisions.”
The emotional and divisive battles over the oil sands reflect, in part, fundamental changes in our society. New technologies have made inexpensive media campaigns not just possible but powerful, and people are more receptive to green messages. The general decline in public regard for the first and second sectors of society – business and government – has been well documented. And the third sector, which includes the ENGOs leading the charge, is growing rapidly. To a large extent this is because of the proliferation and growth of ENGOs – not-for-profit environmental enterprises which have grown in number and financial strength over the last 20 years. And the third sector includes the environmental non-government organizations (ENGOs) which, at their best, represent knowledgeable, concerned citizens who are passionate about such issues as pollution and the environmental impact of industrial development; it is growing rapidly. Combined, these ingredients make up a recipe for conflict.
Who are the players, then? On one side there is government and industry, who argue that oil sands development contributes to energy security, economic growth and the trade balance, and that the stewardship of the environment is effectively being looked after by provincial and federal regulatory bodies. Somewhere in the middle are critics like the Pembina Institute and the Alberta Wilderness Association, which have focused mandates and take credible steps to improve oil sands development. At the other end of the spectrum are organizations like Natural Resources Defence Council, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, which want fundamental social and environmental change.
And despite the preponderance of plaid and patchouli oil among their more militant members, these activist organizations aren’t necessarily short on resources. Jerry Bellikka, director of media relations for the premier’s office, argues that many anti-oil sands organizations work with significant budgets. “They are often well funded. (Some ENGOs) have told us that when they do one of their campaigns they get lots of donations. Whether it’s accurate or not, we don’t know; they don’t give us access to that sort of information directly. But what we do know is that these are very well-funded campaigns. Greenpeace is an excellent example.”
Last year Greenpeace had total worldwide income of about US$267 million, and directed about US$35 million to off-oil climate and energy campaigns. To illustrate the rapid growth of ENGOs, it is worth noting that global income for Greenpeace in 1993 was only US$34 million. Like other third sector organizations, ENGOs are rapidly proliferating in number.
Not all ENGOs are created equal, though. For example, Corporate Ethics International gained a great deal of media attention within Canada by creating a misleading website video and making a miniscule advertising buy – a few billboards in four American cities followed by even less advertising in Britain. Their message was that prospective tourists should punish Alberta for developing the oil sands by not visiting the province. News stories, talk shows and editorials agonized over the story, which proved to be riddled with inaccuracies.
In contrast, Greenpeace has used published reports, boots on the ground and a flair for the dramatic to become a distinctive protest voice in the province. The organization conducts at least one high-profile public relations event each year. Most recently it involved unfurling from the Calgary tower a banner with the message: “Separate Oil and State.” According to Jerry Bellikka, a spokesman for the premier’s office, “we in the provincial government are not really sure what their motivations are. It’s another silly stunt from an organization known for silly stunts.”
Greenpeace activist Mike Hudema begs to differ. “We hung the banner in Calgary because that’s where the industry is headquartered. Our message is that the relationship between the industry and government is too close. Industry shouldn’t be allowed to regulate itself. Companies are allowed to have endless (environmental) exceedences without being punished.”
Surprisingly, says Simon Dyer, the director of the Pembina Institute’s oil sands program, the warring statistics around oil sands development are mostly “accurate. Some will speak to the fact that oil sands operators are investing billions of dollars trying to deal with tailings waste (true), while others will say that successful reclamation of these toxic lakes…has never been demonstrated (also true).” Dyer represents the middle ground among the critics, and he’s concerned that PR has taken over the debate.
“As long as this is framed as a public relations battle the debate is going to continue to deteriorate,” he says. “Mudslinging is going to continue from both sides. Reputationally, Alberta and Canada and the oil sands are going to receive scrutiny and the issues are going to continue to grow.” The Pembina Institute’s position is that “There are issues around oil sands development that need to be addressed. The best way to allay criticism is to engage the critics, find the root of the problems that are causing those concerns, and demonstrate through actions how those are being addressed.”
“Right now,” Dyer says, “the public relations machine is ramping up on both sides of the debate, and those of us who are actually interested in ensuring that oil sands development is conducted in a responsible way are finding that our voices aren’t being heard. (The protagonists should) demonstrate that you are willing to solve the problems associated with oil sands development with action.”
Environmental specialist Carolyn Campbell with the Alberta Wilderness Association tells a similar tale. “Our approach is to work through public awareness, discussion and persuasion, but we don’t hesitate to use legal recourse where that’s necessary,” she says. “We are very dissatisfied with some of the environment-related actions going on in this province. I think the government needs to look at itself to see why stunt-oriented organizations are focusing on Alberta. Other paths (to environmental change) have not been effective.”
There are a lot of “pressing issues” around the oil sands, she says. “The province made a cumulative-effects commitment in the late 1990s focused on the Wood Buffalo municipality area,” she says. The idea was “to set up multi-stakeholder groups to manage the effects of oil sands development, to set thresholds and limits that the fairly fragile boreal ecosystem in northeast Alberta can sustain…. We don’t feel that’s been honoured. The pace of leasing and project approvals has completely swamped the recommendations of that cumulative effects group.” The Pembina Institute’s Dyer agrees. “I think the Alberta government is getting bad advice by the people who are telling them just to spend more money on public relations. The oil sands do not have a PR problem (but) a problem around management and cumulative environmental effects.”
The ENGO third sector has been vocal and articulate. What about the other two sectors, business and government?
Given the size of the prize, business and government are wagering relatively little on public relations, but that is changing. CAPP launched a $10-million campaign in the spring. Earlier this year the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) – a consortium of Suncor Energy Inc., ConocoPhillips Canada, Nexen Inc., Statoil Canada and Total E&P Canada – formally invoked a mandate to improve the oil sands industry’s reputation by “demonstrating and communicating environmental and social and economic performance and technological advancements.” This year, OSLI’s budget is $10 million.
These initiatives are the exception, however. Except for highly-focused campaigns directed at public consultation sessions and other constituencies when they are applying for development licenses, the sectors with the most to gain have done little PR. Resource developers, energy companies, construction firms, trade councils and other parts of the industrial sector that identify with the oil sands have largely remained silent. So controversial have the oil sands become that producers forbid rank-and-file employees to talk to media about the business, even when they are technical experts.
That lack of engagement provoked a stinging rebuke from retired EnCana CEO Gwynn Morgan, highly respected as a progressive voice of industry. In a Globe and Mail column in September titled “leaders must counter bogus oilsands spin” Morgan, based on his years as a CEO, concludes that corporations need to ensure that what they say stands up as truthful in the face of intense scrutiny, while ignoring the critics’ innuendo and distortions.
“But,” Morgan wrote, “I also learned that you don’t win games back on your heels playing defense. Industry leaders need to do more than sitting behind the blue line trying to block shots. They need to take their oilsands story and skate hard up the ice.” And if industry remains reluctant to move the plate into the other end of his own, the provincial government is doing what it can to record the puck in the meantime. One sign: the Alberta government’s recent $268,000 advertising campaign, which included two series of newspaper ads – one for the dailies, the other for community papers. Of course, that is only part of the province’s effort. “In a way silly stunts (like those of Greenpeace) work in our favour,” says provincial spokesperson Jerry Bellikka, “since traditional media respond to that kind of thing with calls to reliable sources like us.”
Bellikka describes two prongs of Alberta’s response to the attacks on bitumen development. “We have developed a campaign aimed at Albertans themselves, many of whom have worked in the energy industry and we want them to (help us) tell it like it is.” That’s the newspaper advertising campaign.
In addition, he says, “Where there is an outright misrepresentation, we attack it directly. When they say the oil sands are destroying an area the size of England, we say ‘No, (the amount of land being directly affected is) smaller than London. In fact, it’s 0.016% of the boreal forest in Alberta.’ It’s true that oil sands production is the fastest-growing source of CO2 in Canada, but the air around oil sands plants is much cleaner than, for example, the air in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe.”
For its part, the industry sounds like it’s ready to stop playing defence. The industry is the other. According to CAPP vice president of communications Janet Annesley, “We have spent a long time being framed as villains by environmental organizations, and we have been trying to prove them wrong. That was not an effective approach. We have to show Canadians our business. We have to show them the kinds of people who work in our companies and the solutions we find to problems in a difficult business. We need to exit the discussion about who is right and focus on doing good work.”
Harris/Decima’s Anderson agrees. “Most customers and consumers these days – at least in in the world I live in – understand that energy has some environmental impact somewhere. For them, the only wrong answers about the environment are intransigence and indifference on the matter of environmental impact. You need to show them how you are mitigating the problems.”
Annesley describes the off-oil NGOs as being driven by an agenda, but says she doesn’t fully understand what that agenda is. “They really seem to think that Big Oil is the only thing standing between society and a renewable energy future. That doesn’t make any sense, but they do seem to believe it.”
She continues, “We fundamentally beg to differ. The solutions are not available today. We know that energy demand is increasing, that energy resources are declining and that much of the conventional energy available is in countries that are very difficult to do business with. We know that energy supplies must diversify. We know that energy development is under greater scrutiny than ever before. And we know that the industry has to meet the planet’s growing energy needs in ways that are increasingly environmentally accountable. That is the rock and the hard place in which we sit.”
Given its precarious position, Roger Gibbins, the president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, thinks a little humility would serve the industry well. “The oil sands proponents will to some degree always be on the defensive on the environmental front,” he says. “The oil sands industry has a lot of negative images to deal with. The industry has to acknowledge that its work has had an adverse environmental impact in the past, and begin there. I think that if the industry is a bit repentant, and admits it hasn’t done the best job in the past, it will be in a better place to win people’s minds and hearts. Just arguing with environmentalists doesn’t have that effect.”
That’s a message that seems to be finding an audience. In September, Marcel Coutu, the CEO of Canadian oil Sands and the chairman of the board at Syncrude, reached out to the grandfather of Canada’s environmental movement, David Suzuki, and asked him to broker a truce between the two sides. “Instead of having this polarized discussion about (non-governmental organizations) thinking we’re this, and industry thinking we’re that,” Coutu told the Edmonton Journal, “why don’t we get together and find out what the common ground is, and agree to what is best practice and go forward that way, instead of wasting so many resources on both sides, with the media in the middle trying to communicate messages?”
Suzuki scoffed at the offer, though, declining the invitation to play go-between. Which side will take the next step remains to be seen.