By March 27, 2017 Read More →

CAPP unleashes PR popgun when it really needs cannons

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Oil sands plant. Nexen photo.

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) should get down in trenches with Big Green opponents

This is a long read, but an important one because I’ve tried to explain why the Canadian oil and gas industry is such a wretched communicator, why it has consistently fumbled the politics, messaging, and execution for every energy project in recent memory. In this June 29, 2015 column, I am very hard on CAPP, which is really a proxy for the industry in my view; they’re all horrible, but CAPP is the worst, so I pick on it rather frequently. How bad is CAPP? Find an Alberta or Canadian cabinet minister or staffer and ask how bad CAPP is. They won’t say so on the record, but over a beer or coffee they’ll explain how government has to save the Canadian industry from itself most times. Find a thesaurus and look up synonyms for incompetent, arrogant, and parochial – they all of those things and worse. But enough CAPP bashing. This column offers a glimpse into the industry’s underlying political and communications problems, which it can fix if it wants to. Let’s just hope it wants to in the very near future.

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Canada’s Energy Citizens, a new CAPP PR campaign intended to counter years of aggressive opposition by environmentalists, is a dud.

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Jeff Gaulin, VP of communications, Canadian Assoc. of Petroleum Producers.

Before I explain why it’s a dud, let me begin this column by stating the obvious: In the debate over the Alberta oil sands and pipelines to transport that crude to market, Canadians benefit most when there are multiple points of view and sources of information. Energy industry opponents – environmental groups, First Nations, unions – have done a great job getting out their message. Industry has not.

I once asked a CAPP executive why his organization didn’t tell industry’s story more aggressively. “Markham, we’ve got a ton of information on our web sites. If people are interested, they’ll find it,” he told me.

That “We’ve built it, they will come” approach hasn’t worked real well. During my interview with Jeff Gaulin, CAPP VP of communications, for last week’s news story about Canada’s Energy Citizens, he agreed when I asked him if things have become so bad for industry that the time has finally come to be more assertive.

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“Energy Citizens are advocates for Canada’s Oil and Natural Gas industry. They play a role in spreading the word about the positive role energy plays in our lives every day. ” – website.

Canada’s Energy Citizens is “a program and a platform that allows average Canadians to learn more about the oil and gas industry” and share that information with their family, friends, and social media networks.  Basically, CAPP is hoping to turn ordinary Canadians into energy ambassadors.

Canada’s Energy Citizens should go over well in Tim Hortons (my keyboard was dripping with sarcasm as I wrote that line).

I suppose something is better than nothing, but not much better. This strategy will fail for a number of reasons.

For starters, Canada’s Energy Citizens fights fire with, well, the image that comes to mind is a raging inferno and a garden hose. Or a child’s popgun and cannons. You get the picture.

Gaulin argues that his polling finds strong support for oil and gas across the country: 42 per cent of Canadians support it, while 25 per cent oppose. [Ed. note: CAPP declined to provide the data to me.] And he suggests those numbers hold up in BC, ground zero for the Canadian environmental movement and the battleground over two pipeline projects, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion. That transportation capacity is critical to the growth of Alberta’s oil sands industry.

What’s remarkable about those polling numbers is that the economic engine of Canada – the Western Canadian energy industry – is supported by far less than half the population. Hardly a ringing endorsement for CAPP, is it?

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Oil slick spreading through English Bay.

Despite what Gaulin claims about BC, Big Oil is a toxic brand in Metro Vancouver. The hysteria over the recent spill of 17 barrels of bunker fuel into English Bay illustrates just how toxic. The release of 17 barrels – five hot tubs worth – of bunker fuel was greeted by the news media and on social media with cries of “environmental disaster” and “tragedy.” When I engaged with critics on Facebook, hoping for a thoughtful discussion of the facts, I was savaged with emotional arguments, like comparing the English Bay incident to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of 750,000 barrels of crude oil.

Will the average BC citizen subject themselves to ferocious attacks  on behalf of an industry they don’t work in and to which they have no real connection? I doubt it. Not on Facebook and Twitter, not in the local coffee shop.

Opponents in BC hate the oil industry with a white hot passion and the best that can be said for “supporters” is that they generally agree with the statement, “too much risk, not enough benefit.”

That attitude has already begun festering in Ontario and Quebec, through which the Energy East pipeline will pass and where environmentalists are busy organizing. Maritime provinces have already banned hydraulic fracturing despite industry opposition.

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Michael Whatley, Consumer Energy Alliance.

If you want to see what a robust push back to Big Green looks like, consider the Texas local anti-fracking movement. I recently interviewed Michael Whatley, policy advisor to the Consumer Energy Alliance, in Lubbuck.

Environmentalists in oil-producing states are targeting county boards and town councils, asking them to pass bylaws and ordinances banning or restricting hydraulic fracturing. Denton, TX made national headlines when a local environmental group managed to get an oil and gas drilling moratorium on the ballot last fall and 59 per cent of voters supported it. Almost immediately, local anti-fracking movements popped up in other Texas cities. Whatley and his group jumped into the debate, telling industry’s story and collecting letters and emails of support. After a few months of vigorous political debate, legislators stepped in with bills asserting the State’s primacy in regulating oil and gas development, effectively ending the controversy.

“When we engage and we put the facts on the table we generally get the right outcome,” he argued. “But where industry and the third parties don’t engage then universally we’re getting bad results.”

The key word in Whatley’s quote is “engage.” Canadian oil and gas companies – and their advocacy organizations like CAPP – do a very bad job of engaging with the Canadian public.

Why is that?

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TransCanada CEO Russ Girling.

For starters, the C-suites of oil and gas and pipeline companies are dominated by engineers, accountants, and lawyers, generally not the greatest communicators. And this generation of executives and managers has spent its career communicating with governments, regulators, and maybe a smattering of stakeholders like landowners. The idea that energy projects might have to earn “social licence” – the right to operate in affected communities – outside established political and regulatory regimes is still considered heresy (and a Greenpeace plot) by many industry insiders.

The oil and gas industry has historically communicated with Canadians in two ways.

The first is a regulatory model. For instance, the National Energy Board requires pipeline proponents to consult with landowners and stakeholders along the route of a proposed project. A company like Kinder Morgan holds open houses where smiling young employees dispense information and answer questions as best they can.

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Ian Anderson, Kinder Morgan Canada CEO.

The second is the traditional agency model, which consists mostly of bought media (advertising) and earned media (e.g. press releases and newspaper op-eds). [Disclosure: during April and May 2014 I stepped away from my editorial duties at Beacon News to write a background document for CAPP and produce a number of videos, resuming my Beacon duties after the project was finished]

Neither of those two communications models has prepared the Canadian industry for the onslaught against the Alberta oil sands and energy infrastructure over the past five or six years.

Green Peace and the multitude of regional and local environmental groups opposing pipelines and the “tar sands” run 24/7/365 political campaigns. They actively recruit members, they hold huge rallies and walks, they organize hundreds or thousands of people to protest (e.g. Kinder Morgan’s surveys on Burnaby Mountain, which resulted in dozens of arrests), they enthusiastically engage with supporters on social media, and they work very hard at getting their message out via the media.

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Art Sterritt, executive director of the BC Coast First Nations.

Allying themselves with First Nations, especially in BC, was a master stroke. First Nations have considerable moral legitimacy when it comes to protecting the environment of their traditional territories. Thanks to numerous legal victories, First Nations now also have plenty of legal and political clout.

The combination of environmentalist organizing and campaigning, and First Nation opposition to energy projects, has created a very potent resistance movement CAPP has struggled to counter.

So, what should CAPP do?

Canada’s Energy Citizens isn’t nearly enough. Gaulin says the campaign has 10,000 people signed up, but he could have double or triple that amount and it wouldn’t matter. Canada’s Energy Citizens is a popgun when CAPP needs cannons.

Perhaps it’s time for a more direct approach, but one that is open and transparent about its motives and funding sources.

TransCanada landed in hot water last fall when it was reported that PR firm Edelman recommended the Calgary-based pipeline company secretly fund third-party groups – commonly called “Astroturf organizations” – to promote the Energy East project. The media controversy forced TransCanada to repudiate the strategy – which it never adopted, only considered – and sever ties with Edelman.

But that doesn’t mean that CAPP couldn’t get down in the trenches itself. Why not put more effort into presenting to chambers of commerce and asking their members for support, for instance? The business community is the natural ally of the energy industry. But that support won’t be given unless industry works for it.

And if CAPP isn’t structured to campaign, then maybe it’s time for CAPP members to trim some of the organization’s generous budget and set up a separate operation to undertake campaigning?

Oil isn’t going away any time soon. We’ll be using – and producing – it for decades at the very least. If the oil and gas industry is going to keep producing and building the infrastructure to get its product to market, it needs to do a much better job of convincing Canadians it deserves their trust.

If campaigning has worked well for environmentalists, perhaps CAPP should give it a try. Then Jeff Gaulin can get his own hands dirty, rather than asking Canadians to do the dirty work for him.

Posted in: Markham on Energy

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