Would you lend billions to an oil CEO who thinks the Canadian government is out to get him?

“What we believe is the federal [Liberal] government is positioning itself to let the energy industry die so that they can get votes to get re-elected.” – Jeff Tonken, CAPP board chair

A Friday email from the oil and gas industry’s Energy Citizens campaign urges Canadians to “Vote Energy this October.” The problem is that the supposedly non-partisan Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) is advocating blatantly partisan policy positions, a recent departure from past practice that is a huge political gamble by the sector.

Patrick McCurdy.

“It is hard not to see this campaign as partisan given that it aligns neatly with the Conservative view of energy and challenges multiple Liberal energy policies,” says Professor Patrick McCurdy, a University of Ottawa expert on political narrative.

Examples of opposition to Trudeau government policies from the Vote Energy platform include “repealing Bill C-48 and fixing Bill C-69” and “withdrawing the proposed Clean Fuel Standard in its entirety.” Hmm, which of the federal opposition parties support identical positions? Hint: it’s Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party of Canada.

Now, CAPP does claim to be neutral. “CAPP does not support or oppose any particular registered party or candidate,” is the boilerplate attached to every press release.

If that claim is true, how does CAPP explain this outrageous comment from Jeff Tonken, the chair of its board of directors?

“What we believe is the federal [Liberal] government is positioning itself to let the energy industry die so that they can get votes to get re-elected,” he said at a June 14 press conference. His comments were then faithfully transcribed to the CAPP press release, essentially making it an official pronouncement of the industry biggest lobby group.

Jeff Tonken.

Think about what the CEO of Birchcliff Energy is arguing: that the Canadian government’s secret agenda is to kill the country’s largest export sector and one of its most significant sources of tax revenue. This is tinfoil hat conspiracy narrative writ large.

It’s also a commonly held view in the executive suites of downtown Calgary office towers. A paranoid groupthink not seen since Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program of the early 1980s has seized the leaders of some of Canada’s biggest publicly traded corporations.

One wonders what institutional investors and investment bankers on Wall St. think of this collective psychopathy. Would you lend billions to a CEO who thinks the Canadian government is out to get him? Or, for that matter, to an oil and gas CEO who denies climate change – not uncommon in Calgary – at a time when investors are clamouring for carbon risk management strategies from oil and gas producers?

How do we square Tonken’s blatantly partisan public comment with CAPP’s claim it is non-partisan?

The answer is, we can’t. There is plenty of other evidence that CAPP has abandoned its traditional policy advocacy role and taken a hard turn into politics, both provincial and federal.

Here are a few examples.

The day after Kenney’s April 16 victory, CAPP released a press statement titled, “The United Conservative Party commits to building a prosperous future for Alberta’s oil and natural gas industry.” The fawning headline was followed by even more fawning praise for the party that basically committed to implementing CAPP’s Alberta Vote Energy platform holus-bolus.

Then there was the April 11 at the Azuridge Estate Hotel in the foothills of the Rockies where prominent Alberta business executives met with CPC leader Andrew Scheer and his brain trust to plot strategy for the fall election. The meeting was organized by the Modern Miracle Network, a group of rabid hydrocarbon boosters led by the acerbic Michael Binnion, CEO of tiny Quebec-bsed natural gas producer Questerre.

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

Oh, and Tim McMillan, officially representing CAPP.

CAPP media flack Tanya Zelinksi told Energi Media in an email that, “CAPP’s role at the event you’re referring to was not political in nature…Tim McMillan was present at the event to introduce a speaker from Ipsos. He is often asked to moderate, present or introduce speakers at a variety of public and private events. Attending an event of this type is not unusual.”

Really? I wonder how often McMillan attends private meetings with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh or Green Party leader Elizabeth May? A good guess would be never.

While non-partisanship remains CAPP’s official policy, circumstances appear to have changed.

According to journalist Stephen Maher in the July edition of Maclean’s, for the first time, CAPP is registering as a third-party advertiser for the upcoming national election. “The group’s shift is either because CEO Tim McMillan’s style is more political than his predecessor’s, because Shell, a company with significant renewable assets, sold its stake in the oil sands, or because Trudeau’s environmental policy, although it is attacked as soft by environmentalists, has stiffened the spines of the oil patch,” he writes.

Stacey Hatcher.

CAPP has a “more strident message” and will replicate the “Vote Energy” campaign from the provincial election a few months ago, which didn’t “endorse any candidates, but which pushed policies advocated by [Jason] Kenney.”

CAPP communications vice-president Stacey Hatcher told Maher, “We’re an important voice to be heard as a part of all of that, and we couldn’t go away and put our pens down for the next couple of months.”

Hatcher and McMillan may want to reconsider and put down those pens after all.

No one’s fooled by the non-partisan claim and industry’s hardline stance is alienating important constituencies outside Alberta. In Ottawa, for instance.

Which makes the bogus non-partisan strategy such a gamble for CAPP and industry.

What if Trudeau and the Liberals win another majority government? Then CAPP stands completely exposed as a CPC partisan and important doors slam shut on Parliament Hill.

Or, even worse for industry, the Liberals form a minority government supported by the NDP and Green Party with their far more aggressive climate plans. How did that work out in BC, where in return for support in the legislature, NDP Premier John Horgan signing a formal agreement with Andrew Weaver’s Green Party that including fighting the Trans Mountain Expansion project “with every tool in the tool box”?

Alberta is rapidly going off the rails, driven by the likes of Kenney, Tonken, and McMillan. If the adults in the room don’t intervene soon, there will be consequences – political, policy, and business consequences.

Would you lend a billion dollars to any oil and gas CEO whose business is federally regulated in one form or another, yet whose industry trade association is in the process of utterly and possibly irrevocably alienating the federal government?

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