My New Year’s wish for Canadian oil/gas: Time to ditch outdated politics

Tim McMillan, president and CEO, Canadian Assoc. of Petroleum Producers. Photo: CBC.

CAPP understands link between climate policies and pipelines. Other energy associations not so enlightened

My New Year’s wish for the Canadian oil and gas industry is a spanky new political worldview that embraces the energy transition, and an effective communications program that finally – finally! – engages with the Canadian public.

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One of the enduring mysteries of Canadian politics is how the Alberta-based industry completely and utterly missed the changes in energy politics over the past decade. It’s not that industry executives, association worker bees, and sycophantic boosters missed the decline in the popularity of oil and gas. Oh, they understand that pretty well.

They just don’t understand why or what to do about it.

Industry executives and their Yes Men in the energy media continue to believe they can regain lost political legitimacy by “educating” Canadians about energy issues.

Their argument is that if voters knew more, they would be more supportive.

Give Canadians more information. Yell louder at them on social media. Create public relations campaigns to improve “energy literacy” (which, ironically, are mostly read by those who already support the industry).

The problem is, no evidence supports that view.

Polling data suggests Canadians know as much – or as little – about oil and gas production, the Alberta oil sands, and pipelines as they’ve ever known.

What has changed is that Canadians now know more about climate change and global warming, and the role fossil fuels play in releasing greenhouse gas emissions.

And that change in perception has influenced their view of the Canadian oil and gas sector, according to pollster David Coletto, whose firm Abacus Data surveyed 15,000 Canadians in Oct. about their attitudes to federal energy and climate change policy.

“Almost all Canadians recognize the importance of shifting our energy use to one that’s cleaner, one that’s more efficient, and doesn’t produce greenhouse gases or carbon emissions,” Coletto told me in an interview. 

When Coletto says “almost all,” he means 86 per cent of Canadians support the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources and only 14 per cent are opposed, according to the Oct. poll.

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When it comes to political support for the energy industry, Coletto says that historically about 40 per cent of Canadians were staunch defenders of oil and gas and 60 per cent were agnostic on the issue or more supportive of environmental concerns.

But those numbers changed over the past 10 years. Now, he says, energy only enjoys 30 to 33 per cent support, which is a tipping point in some provinces – like British Columbia and Ontario – when it comes to electing governments.

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Those should be alarming numbers for the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors, the Petroleum Services Assoc. of Canada (service companies), Explorers and Producers Association of Canada (Little Oil’s lobby group), and the other Alberta-based industry trade groups.

The message, however, seems not to have made much of an impact in the C-suites of downtown Calgary office towers, with one lonely exception: the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (Big Oil’s chief lobby group).

I’ve been highly critical of CAPP in the past because a) its leaders were oblivious to the political changes taking place in Canada; b) its communications strategies and campaigns reflected the same tired old “energy literacy” approach to influencing public opinion.

During the past year, however, CAPP publicly supported the introduction of the Notley Government’s Climate Leadership plan, which includes a carbon tax, oil sands emissions cap of 100 megatonnes, and a commitment to lower fugitive methane emissions by 40 per cent.

And two weeks ago CAPP issued a press release praising the Trudeau Liberals for their pipeline policy, noting that in an Ipsos poll it commissioned, far and away most voters were also in favour.

“A majority of Canadians agree the Government of Canada has taken a balanced approach to pipelines,” said President and CEO Tim McMillan in the Dec. 15 release.

“Canadians want to see governments take action on climate change but Canadians also want their governments to take action to grow our economy. These decisions can balance both – and Canadians support these decisions.”

A tip of the hat to McMillan. His comments stand in stark contrast to his colleagues in other energy associations. Under his leadership, Canadian Big Oil has taken several tentative steps out of the 1950s and toward 2016.

Mark Salkeld, president and CEO of PSAC.

The only other association that comes close is PSAC, which this fall voted to allow renewable energy service companies to apply for membership. CEO Mark Salkeld says his members – which include global service providers like Halliburton and Schlumberger – are slowly getting onside with renewable energy.

But that dawning awareness hasn’t yet filtered through to PSAC’s communications efforts.


Nor have they for CAPP.

Take the Energy Citizens initiative, launched last year. The website is just more of the same old pro-energy propaganda: Our industry is safe. Energy creates jobs. We’re getting better at protecting the environment.

That’s not news to Canadians. In fact, it’s an embarrassingly low bar, the bare minimum Canadians expect every major industry to meet.

But linking climate policies to energy infrastructure projects is new. And voters, as revealed by both the Abacus poll and CAPP’s own polling, are way ahead of industry this time.

My New Year’s wish is that CAPP will set an example for other energy groups with at least one new major communications initiative explaining how oil and gas fits into the energy transition everyone agrees is already happening.

And as a postscript, that laggards like the drilling contractors and small producers take the hint and re-examine their own communications strategies and campaigns.

Canadian voters and the federal government have got it right. CAPP is slowly and ponderously headed in the right direction. Now it’s time for the rest of the Canadian oil and gas industry to catch up.

Disclosures: 1) CAPP was an advertiser in Beacon News, the predecessor to North American Energy News; 2) I took a 6-week leave of absence from my duties as Beacon News publisher in 2014 to complete a communications writing contract for CAPP.

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