Source: Angus Reid, Six-in-ten Canadians say lack of new pipeline capacity represents a crisis in this country

Pipeline group says industry must engage better with Canadians at very time much of Alberta wants a tougher stance

Chris Bloomer admits the pipeline industry needs to worker hard to connect with the “hearts and minds” of Canadians, yet a poll released Wednesday shows strong support for new pipelines, even in British Columbia. Is that support sustainable?

Chris Bloomer, CEO, CEPA.

The head of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Associations recently spoke to Energi News about how industry needs to do more to counter opposition from anti-pipeline activists by engaging Canadians with a long-term, grassroots strategy that explains the economic importance of energy, as well as recent progress on safety and environmental issues.

We have got to be a lot smarter and a lot more strategic and tell our message a lot more,” he said.

The interview with Bloomer demonstrates that CEPA hasn’t been as smart and strategic as it should have and hasn’t properly communicated its message about how significantly pipeline safety has increased over the past five to 10 years. But similar criticism can also be levelled at the entire Alberta-based energy industry, including its leading trade group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (which declined to be interviewed for this column) and the Alberta government, owner of the resource, which finally in 2018 launched a modest $25.5 million national marketing campaign.

Why has Alberta failed to engage Canadians?

Bloomer thinks the answer lies in the 2008 “tar sands campaign” launched by North American activists and funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund: “…a lot of these activists are paid activists. It’s a job and we don’t do that.” 

But one could argue that CEPA is the just industry equivalent of the “foreign-funded activists” – how much of the money funding CEPA and CAPP directly or indirectly comes from foreign investors and energy companies? – that CAPP and Alberta politicians like Jason Kenney point to as the source of the TMX opposition in BC.

If Dogwood Initiative is urging British Columbians to oppose TMX and CEPA, CAPP and other trade associations are urging them to support it, where is the substantitive difference between the two sides?

The difference is that industry is (thus far) onside with the national energy consensus and the anti-pipeline zealots are not.

The energy consensus looks like this: voters across the country understand the world has begun a long-term transition away from fossil fuels and that climate change is a threat. By a large margin, according to Abacus Data polling, Canadians favour a pragmatic response that supports climate and environmental policies in exchange for the continued growth of oil and gas production, including more pipelines.

Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

This is perfectly illustrated by the 2016 handshake deal between Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, federal approval of the 525,000 b/d TMX from Hardisty, Alberta to Burnaby, BC and Enbridge’s 375,000 b/d Line 3 replacement in recognition of the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan.

Thanks in part to Notley and in part to innvotive work by oil sands producers to de-carbonize bitumen and heavy crude oil, industry is still colouring inside the lines of the consensus.

To remain there, Canadians want to know what industry is doing to reduce emissions and prevent pipeline spills. Their continued support depends upon that understanding.

“We are improving on emissions, we are improving on environmental impact, we do supply a low-carbon [crude oil] product and natural gas. And our we’re improving on that,” says Bloomer, outlining what is the correct, most effective counterpoint to the anti-pipeline activists.  But greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact are not what he thinks industry should focus on.

“The three things that we need to connect with at the grassroots are pocketbooks (incomes), cost of living, and jobs,” says Bloomer. “We do a lot of digital, we have blogs that engage with people, we do YouTube videos. The CEPA communication and advertising campaign is built around trying to make that emotional connection.”

No question economic issues are important, but not placing equal emphasis on emissions and the environment is a mistake, one industry has made for the past decade and seems hellbent on repeating.

The miracle is that Canadians still support pipelines at all, yet they do by a substantial margin, according to the Angus Reid Institute.

Source: Angus Reid.

Oil and gas are critical industries say two-thirds (65%) of Canadians, more than any other industry. Seven in ten (69%) say Canada will suffer “considerable impact if no new pipeline capacity is built.” More than half of us (53%) Energy East and TransMountain pipeline projects, whole only 19 per cent say they oppose both.

Finally, is the lack of new pipeline capacity a crisis? Almost six in 10 (58%) say it is.

Canadians are paying attention and they clearly support Alberta’s pipeline ambitions. Well, not all Canadians. BC’s support is a few points lower than the national average and Quebec is the least supportive of all provinces.

But all that means is that Bloomer and his colleagues like Tim McMillan, CEO of CAPP, need to work harder and smarter to shore up support in a few places where it lags.

He says industry is up to the challenge: “ The opposition to pipelines is a well-organized, well-funded nervous system that has been working on this for a long time. They told us 10 years ago what they were going to do and we didn’t really come to grips with the potential implications of that down the road. So, we need to create that same nervous system that defends our interest and brings together a broader range of stakeholders.”

How that “nervous system” is built and wielded is a critical question going forward. If it’s just more videos and blog posts repeating the same old messages, expect polling numbers to slide as the energy transition expands in Canada.

The even greater danger is that today’s good intention to engage more, to compete for Canadians hearts and minds, is hijacked by a political agenda that includes belligerent energy war rooms, obstreperous trucker convoys to Ottawa, and tinfoil hat conspiracy theories about US oil interests plotting to landlock Alberta crude.

That agenda is too extreme, too outside the Canadian energy consensus, and will lead to diminishing support across the country.

The Alberta oil, gas, and pipeline industries have arrived at an historic moment. Bloomer and his colleagues can sell an optimistic future that fits with the Candian consensus on energy infrastructure or they can fall down the populist rabbithole and wake up in five or 10 years to discover that they have lost popular support.

The right, smart thing or the not so smart, wrong thing. Which will it be?