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Documents reveal Canadian oil sands lobbying

Scott Tong Jun 6, 2011

We hear a lot these days about soft power, Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye’s phrase for getting what you want through attraction. The seduction game arguably plays to Canada’s public image: cultural earnestness, a 90 percent favorability rating globally, Gretzky, maple syrup, and oh the nature. Canadian wiles.

Yet when it comes to promoting Canada’s booming oil sands sector, Ottawa can play political hardball, too, as I reported today on Marketplace.

“Proactive Outreach Strategy”

Congress and several states want to ban more polluting types of crude oil. But “more polluting” is subject to assumptions, definitions and greenhouse-gas emissions studies. It’s complicated. 

That’s where a Canadian “proactive outreach strategy” comes in, in the words of a government powerpoint presentation

Beyond the U.S., the European Union is considering similar bans. A Canadian government strategic note details engagement “with universities and senior officials in Europe, and at the G8, International Energy Agency, and other groups.”

Ottawa’s apparent fear: its customer base. “Market access under threat in U.S.” says an internal memo.

The end goal: Internal emails detail a messaging campaign — with outreach to companies like ExxonMobil — “to ensure that the oil keeps a flowing.”

Government / Industry Collaboration

Canadian diplomats scheduled meetings “with like-minded allies (BP and Shell),” note strategy documents.

Canada’s deputy minister of natural resources met with Canadian oil producers on the need “to up our game” according to meeting minutes. “This is an issue for both government and industry.”

Alberta had hired Washington lobbyists, including a $25,000 / month retainer deal with James Blanchard, former U.S. ambassador to Canada and governor of Michigan.

Many contracts have now expired, except for one with the industry-funded Center for North American Energy Security, according to center managing director Thomas Corcoran

He said the current contract runs through mid-July. No word on the dollar amount, but an Alberta spokesman noted previous contracts have paid the center $30,000 for 16 months of work.

Separately, companies like pipeline builder TransCanada employ their own lobbyists, including Paul Elliott, former deputy campaign director for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. Clinton of course now runs the State Department, which is considering a pipeline proposal from her old campaign staffer’s current employer, TransCanada.

Anything inherently wrong with Canada’s approach? 

Many say this is simply diplomacy-for-grownups; each country promoting its industries. And in Alberta, industry executives and analysts argue Canadian oil never gets a fair shake. 

Calgary analyst David Yager:

“You don’t get a chance to drive to Saudi Arabia and see whether they spill oil in the ground. I know places in Russia that are particularly dirty. You’ve got an industrial operation, an unhandsome or ugly industrial operation off the side of a highway. In a country with a jet airport. So it’s pretty easy to go up there, look around and declare it awful.” 

Critics liken the Canadian government to a petro-state, arguing the government now represents the resource, not the people.

The Image Thing: “to address the negative perception”

Documents reveal Canadian concern for the country’s image.

An action plan describes the Canadian government considering to hire a public-relations firm to help its messaging in Europe.

A strategy note describes “increased sensitivity around the world to oil sands development.”

Documents cite “Dirty Oil” campaigns affecting the public debate: “Canada: not just Mounties and ice hockey any more.”

A wikileaks memo describes Canada’s environment minister being “shocked” at oil sands criticism in Europe. Another mentions Canadian “concern” over White House “energetic calls develop renewable energies and reduce our reliance on imported oil.”

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