Energy industry has to woo “soft political middle” so Trudeau Liberals have enough “legitimacy” to approve pipelines
I got myself in hot water with a couple of columns lately. One argued that oil and gas boosters do more harm than good in public debates. Another, based on an interview with Prof. Lianne Lefsrud, described the shift from cognitive (science, facts, data) to normative (emotion, morals) legitimacy and how the North American oil and gas industry has failed to make the transition, with disastrous results for pipeline projects.
Today’s column is about the strategies industry should be employing to rally political support to its energy infrastructure projects and the oil sand. Industry can do better by thinking differently about how it communicates to the public, according to Calgary-based consultant Doug Lacombe, who has worked with many oil and gas companies over the years.
The Canadian oil and gas industry used to be viewed as a utility or some standard piece of infrastructure, says Lacombe. That changed 10 years ago when Canadian and American environmental groups targeted the Alberta oil sands and its infrastructure. Industry found itself having to play politics.
“If you look at politics in this country, by and large, all the rough edges on either of the fringes left or right tend to be buffed out and Canadians tend to be more centrist – you might lean centre-left, you might lean centre-right, but ultimately we’re most comfortable in the centre,” he said in an interview.
The basic strategy, then, should be to aim for the soft political middle.
“There are folks that would really like to have a reasonable conversation in that soft middle. They may tilt a little towards the poll where they agree with you, they may tilt where they’re kind of suspicious and sort of disagree with you, but the soft middle is the gang that’s going to give you the social license to be in business,” he said.
“The fringe elements just detract from that effort.”
In the case of inter-provincial pipeline projects – such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion to the West Coast or TransCanada’s Energy East from Alberta to New Brunswick – the Canadian Constitution gives the federal government exclusive jurisdiction. That means Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has to feel he has enough support from the “soft middle” of the electorate to approve new projects.
“I would say that what you’re looking for begrudging acceptance by the public,” says Lacombe.
“You’re not going to get much better than that. Trudeau and the feds need to reconcile their commitment to climate change and their various green policy statements with the current energy needs of society and the economy. They have to bring everybody into that sort of big tent atmosphere.”
When asked if it’s fair to say that oil and gas boosters actually have a negative impact on that soft political middle, Lacombe laughs and points out that no married person ever won over their spouse by yelling more loudly or showing them spreadsheets.
“It’s just not a line that plays. We’re dealing in the realm of emotion here because none of us are geoscientists, geologists or physicists or chemists,” he said.
“We’re really in this realm where we want folks we trust to convince us that the path we’re on as a society is a relatively non-destructive, necessary, and responsible path. So when a booster comes along and with a “damn the torpedoes” attitude it just invites suspicion and people don’t trust the system, therefore they’re going to push back against it.”
Lacombe says the same criticism can be levied against energy industry opponents like Greenpeace.
“Those are two sides of the same coin, in my view. If you say, ‘Turn the taps off, we don’t need it,’ that’s just silly. Saying, ‘Turn the taps wide open,’ is also dumb. Both off those gets you written off as an extremist, which just makes the soft middle uncomfortable.”
What kind of advice does Lacombe give to energy companies who are looking for different communications strategy?
“We try a strategic approach deisgned to engender trust. Trust starts with a high degree of transparency, so we call it radical transparency,” he said.
“Why not let people in and let them see what the choices are? Like most things in life, these are hard choices. This is a muddy process, but at the end of the day the lights have to stay on.”
Lacombe says many industry leaders admit they failed in British Columbia, where the pipeline opposition was well organized and well funded.
“Executives were defensive and ineffective for a long time. But now there are some bright lights and there are some companies who understand they have to try harder and be more open,” he said.
“In a strange way I was encouraged by the reactions that Enbridge and TransCanada had recently over the unwillingness of Husky Energy to talk about their North Saskatchewan River spill. So Enbridge and TransCanada, I think, almost verbatim said ‘This is not helpful, now we all have to defend that error,’ so some level of transparency is required. Have the decency to talk to them, not restrict everything to email only and hide.”
While industry is finally starting to understand the new communications paradigm, it will ultimately be market forces that hasten the transition to new strategies, says Lacombe.
“We’ve seen disruption in all kinds of different industries. So I harken back to the book by Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, which argues that it’s now easier to organize and to find like-minded people and to resist something with a high degree of sophistication,” he said.
“Industry leaders are sick of not being able to build things. Therefore, the market will force them to get better at communicating.”