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Canadians need and deserve information from both sides (oil/gas, clean energy) during Energy Transition debate

The podcast for Sept. 18 2017 is an interview with Chelsie Klassen, communications manager for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the topic is the oil and gas sector’s communications strategies and programs.

I’ve argued in columns that a great deal has changed for industry politics over the past decade and industry has been very slow to respond.

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Chelsie Klassen, manager, media relations and issues management, CAPP.

The essence of that change is a significant loss of “political legitimacy” (not social licence, the two are not the same), according to political scientist Keith Brownsey. Canadians just don’t trust Big Oil anymore.

CAPP’s own polling data backs up that argument. The Calgary-based trade group released an Ipsos Reid survey in June that showed – amidst the positive news that plenty of other countries like Canadian oil just fine – only 21 per cent of Canadians think favourably of the industry and only 18 per cent trust it.

My hypothesis about why Canadians don’t trust the oil and gas sector is that over the past decade a confluence of the climate change debate, ferocious opposition to the oil sands and pipelines from environmental and indigenous groups, and the recent more visible manifestations of the Energy Transition (electric vehicles, solar panels on rooftops, etc.) have convinced most people that fossil fuels are a sunset industry.

Recent polling by Abacus Data shows that Canadians think the sun may not set on oil and gas for decades yet, but the national economy has definitely begun the transition to a clean energy future – and they’re fine with that.

Given that political context, industry’s communications strategies are puzzling.

Puzzling, but understandable given the history of oil and gas in Canada.

Producers and pipeline companies have grown up in a highly regulated world where federal and provincial legislation dictated who they had to talk to: mostly local stakeholders directly affected by a project. That could include First Nations and indigenous communities, landowners, and towns in the path of a pipeline, for instance.

But the executives running those companies never had to fight for their industry’s very right to survive.

They do now.

cappFormer President Barack Obama – while rejecting TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas – famously said that “we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.” That comment became the rallying cry “leave it in the ground!” that has gained plenty of mainstream currency.

Wall St. investors regularly worry about “stranded assets” if oil consumption drops precipitously in the near future.

And so on.

CAPP and other industry groups have been slow to respond to the changes in their political environment, which one could argue shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The industry is deeply conservative, dominated by cautious professionals (engineers, lawyers, and accountants are rife in the executive suites of Calgary head offices) who began their careers during the salad days of the sector, when oil and gas were economic heroes, not the malignant climate destroyers they’re accused of being today.

Many of the industry professionals I interact with simply don’t accept that their world has changed.

Climate change isn’t a thing, or if it is, human activity has had little or no effect. They see carbon taxes as attacks by governments secretly in league with Greenpeace and the eco-warrior set. As one industry booster recently said to me, “Just because you spell it with a capital E and a capital T doesn’t mean the Energy Transition is real.”

Most importantly, they view the changing politics of energy as cyclical, not structural. Something that can be reversed by electing appropriately conservative governments in Edmonton and Ottawa.

That attitude is slowly changing, according to Klassen, and is reflected in CAPP’s approach to communications.

Fair enough. But is change coming quickly enough?

If the Energy Transition is already well underway – my reporting over the past five years has demonstrated that it is – then the Canadian oil and gas sector must fight hard to regain political legitimacy in the face of ferocious opposition in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec, provinces where energy infrastructure needs to be built over the next decade or two.

Readers can listen to this interview with Klassen and decide for themselves if CAPP is doing enough.

They should pay special attention to our discussion of the American vs. Canadian approaches to communications and PR. The Yanks are much more aggressive and aren’t afraid to mix it up with opponents at the community level. They also don’t blanche at funding “astroturf” organizations to promote their objectives and help educate the public, something the Canadian industry has explicitly rejected.

Canada desperately needs vigorous public discussion and political debate about the Energy Transition, which requires an active role for the oil and gas sector. If CAPP and other energy trade organizations keep their head down and take their usual low key approach, then that leaves the field to their opponents, the “the leave it in the ground” movement.

Canadians need to hear from both sides of this issue so they can arrive at an informed opinion about the Energy Transition, especially the role of oil and gas going forward.

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