What is CAPP doing to counter BC anti-pipeline activists? Nothing.

Tim McMillan echoed UCP talking points during the 2019 Alberta election.

CAPP has not proved McMillan’s specious claim that “we’ve had pipelines stalled or even cancelled because of a concerted effort by foreign-funded activists”

The Alberta oil patch is mad as hell – and getting madder every day – at Tzeporah Berman and BC anti-pipeline activists over delays to Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX). Unfortunately, the industry trade associations that are obligated to be level-headed and fact-based are now joining the frenzy, most notably the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Last Wednesday, CAPP CEO Tim McMillan addressed the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. His remarks included the usual withering criticism of the Alberta oil and gas industry’s favourite bogeyman, “foreign-funded anti-pipeline activists,” and specific references to Berman, its bete noire of the moment.

But his comments raise an interesting, and largely unasked, question: What is CAPP doing on the West Coast? How hard is it working to counter anti-Alberta activism and to promote the oil sands and pipelines and counter criticism of the TMX? The answers are almost nothing and not very hard at all.

Coastal First Nations – like the Tsleil-Waututh that organized a 10,000 person march in Burnaby in 2018 – are more responsible for TMX delays than activists.

How about the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association (CEPA)? Their members are the pipeline operators and proponents of new energy infrastructure, so at least they must be working hard to garner public support in Metro Vancouver, right? Nope. In fact, none of the Alberta-based oil, gas, and pipeline trade associations spend significant time or resources in British Columbia. 

CAPP has a government relations person in Victoria to lobby the provincial government. It also has a West Coast communications advisor who is all but invisible. Despite being on the job for over four years, this individual appears so rarely in a news story that it’s a wonder CAPP hasn’t put out a missing persons bulletin for them.

McMillan and his organization have made a serious strategic error by not engaging British Columbians about Alberta oil sands and pipeline projects. That allowed pipeline opponents to campaign unopposed and unchecked by facts and evidence. They made great use of their opportunity, fashioning a public narrative that is widely believed in Metro Vancouver, the epicentre of pipeline opposition.

CAPP told Energi Media that Tim McMillan was unavailable for an interview.

McMillan admitted in his Edmonton remarks just how badly CAPP was out-maneuvered. “We started to believe that our industry was unstoppable, that success was a given,” the former Saskatchewan Party energy minister told his receptive business audience. ““(We believed) that inefficiencies were not to be worried about, that foreign activists were just annoyances, that our momentum, our inertia, was too great to ever truly be stopped. Sadly, we now know that is just not true.”

Our momentum was too great to be stopped? Pipeline opponents were just annoyances? If I’m not mistaken, that’s the heavy stench of hubris in the air. It’s like the Edmonton Oilers voluntarily skating off the ice and then jeering from the bench as the Calgary Flames score goal after goal on the unprotected goaltender. Hockey coaches talk about “lack of compete,” but in this case, CAPP never even laced up its skates.

But, of course, its opponents did. And make no mistake: activists have every legal and moral right to be in this game on grounds that accidents may irreparably damage the environment, that coastal First Nations object to the project running through their traditional territory, or that local residents are worried about an explosion at the tank farm. Pick an issue, and the right of TMX opponents to have their voice heard  is guaranteed in and by law. And as citizens of a democracy, we should defend their right to do so. Taking money from American charities to fund that fight is legal and, if you believe that the environmental consequences of the Canadian oil and gas industry affect other countries, perfectly moral.

Anti-pipeline activists like Tzeporah Berman preach to the environmental choir in BC. Despite their noisy efforts, BC public support for TMX is significantly higher than opposition.

Sure, those activists bend and stretch the truth at times in order to tell their story. But here’s the thing: CAPP and CEPA are allowed to tell their stories too. They just choose to not do it. Then they complain that they’re not being heard properly. Incredibly, an industry whose collective market capitalization is measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars thinks it’s the victim here. “We have been the victims of a very well-orchestrated, well-planned foreign-funded attack on Canadian infrastructure, on pipelines, on LNG facilities,” McMillan said. “Thank you Jane Fonda, thank you Tzeporah Berman. You’ve cost us tens of thousands of jobs. We’ve been selling our resources at a steep discount with devastating effects.”

McMillan’s logic is embarrassing, or should be for the former oilfield services contractor. CAPP’s annual budget is rumoured to be well north of $50 million (CAPP won’t confirm the number), yet it spends a pittance on its West Coast operations. CAPP refuses to fight down in the trenches where the TMX public relations war will be won or lost. On a personal note, I live in B.C. and am a regular guest on a handful of provincial radio stations, discussing the latest energy news and defending the Alberta oil sands and TMX. By my reckoning, I defend Alberta more in a month than CAPP does in a year.  And no one pays me. I do it as part of my obligation as a journalist to speak the truth as I have uncovered it in the course of my reporting.

I often talk to British Columbians about TMX and the oil sands. In fact, on May 2, 2017 I debated Dr. Gordon Cornwall of the BC Green Party at the Vancouver Public Library on those topics. Do you know why they asked me to defend Alberta? Because CAPP, CEPA (Canadian Energy Pipelines Association), and Kinder Morgan Canada refused the invitation. After the debate (which I won handily), eight Green Party members told me they didn’t know oil sands producers were dramatically lowering the carbon-intensity of their heavy crude oil or that pipeline integrity management had improved significantly in the previous five years, lowering spill incidents and volumes. Sure, it was a small subset of the 100 or so people in the audience, but doesn’t it speak volumes that any BC Green Party members might reconsider their opinions about the oil sands and TMX?

British Columbians are willing to listen, and the Alberta oil and gas industry has some great stories to tell.  The problem is that leaders like Tim McMillan refuse to tell them. Instead, they hide behind the myth that activists are the cause of their problems, and refuse to take ownership of their own role in creating them. We demand that children take responsibility for their actions, and yet we seem willing to let Alberta’s biggest industry off the hook. McMillan’s remarks to the Chamber of Commerce are an admission of CAPP’s failure. How shameful for Alberta’s corporate elite, to have been taken out behind the woodshed and paddled by a handful of idealistic and motivated activists.

These are challenging times for Alberta, and they promise to become even more difficult before they get better. That’s why stellar leadership is needed in key positions, most notably at the head of the industry’s most visible group. And that leadership needs to accept the fact that CAPP doesn’t get to blame anti-pipeline activists for industry’s market access problems if CAPP refuses to be active in the BC debate over Trans Mountain Expansion.

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