Canadian voters deserve accurate, reasoned, factual debate about pipeline proposals like Energy East
Donald Trump isn’t the only purveyor of “fake news” and “alternate facts.” For Canadian examples, you can’t beat environment non-government organizations (ENGOs). But unlike the American president, ENGOs have a very clear political objective. And it’s working to perfection.
The latest Canadian example is Patrick Derochie, the Toronto-based climate program manager for Environmental Defence whose anti-pipeline Globe and Mail op-ed in Friday’s edition is chock a block with errors (deliberate or otherwise), misrepresentations, and wilful ignorance.
Take this mendacious nugget: “Investment in the tar sands is drying up and the big multinational oil players have already fled.”
Investment in the oil sands is not drying up, according to Kevin Birn, Oil Sands Dialogue manager for IHS Markit. Sure, oil sands capex reached $80 billion a year during the pre-2015 boom and has now fallen to $25 billion annually in the “lower for longer” price environment of today because producers have shifted from building new facilities and infrastructure to optimizing what they constructed when prices were over $100 a barrel.
That optimization will expand oil sands production by 1.3 million b/d by 2030, bringing total oil sands production up to 3.7 million b/d, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
And oil sands producers like Suncor and Cenovus are busy driving down costs by 34 to 40 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions by 30 to 33 per cent over the same period.
Oil sands executives acknowledge the challenge of climate change, worked with the Rachel Notley NDP in Alberta to devise new climate regulations (emissions cap/carbon levy/output-based allocations), and have stated over and over publicly that they are preparing to vigorously compete in a “carbon-constrained” world where prices may hover around $50 for years.
And international players are not fleeing the oil sands. This is a United Conservative Party talking point, which sounds very odd coming from the pen of an ENGO eco-activist.
Strange bedfellows, indeed.
As I have demonstrated in numerous columns, Shell Canada and ConocoPhillips recently sold oil sands assets worth $32 billion to Canadian industry players for perfectly good reasons that had everything to do with rationalizing their asset bases, repairing debt-laden balance sheets, or (in the case of Shell) pivoting into a greater emphasis on natural gas.
Readers will immediately understand the genius of Derochie’s strategy: it takes me six paragraphs of boring facts to refute his one sentence of mischief.
And that’s the point.
Derochie is mimicking Donald Trump.
It doesn’t matter that his op-ed is patently untrue, partly true, or puts the wrong construction on the facts.
What matters is that it plays to the ENGO base, just as Trump plays to his political base of disaffected Americans who are just happy to have a champion, facts and rationality be damned.
Let me demonstrate how well the strategy of Derochie and other pipeline opponents is working.
The same question asked in 2017 elicited quite different responses: negative sentiment remained steady at 21 per cent, but positive slipped 14 points to 44 per cent, and neutral grew 16 points to 36 per cent.
Most importantly for TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline project – which will convert existing natural gas line to oil and build new pipeline through Eastern Canada – support for new pipelines is quite low at 27 per cent.
But it is the neutral and opposed numbers that should really grab our attention.
Only 27 per cent of Quebecers outright oppose a new pipeline, slightly more than the national average. But a whopping 43 per cent are neutral.
And Liberal voters are as neutral as NDP voters at 35 per cent.
With the 2019 election looming, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are no doubt getting nervous about their 40 Quebec seats, ridings they will need to hang on to if they hope for another majority; with a 10-seat advantage, they can hardly afford to lose any.
Given the political context, the most logical strategy for ENGOs like Environmental Defence is to move more Quebec voters (Ontario is much more positive and less opposed to new pipelines) into the neutral and opposed categories over the next 18 months.
As Trump has so ably demonstrated over the past year, what better way to change public perception than “fake news” and “alternate facts”?
The pipeline opponent’s objective isn’t to be accurate, it’s to move the public perception needle.
And it works.
It works partly because news media like Postmedia and the Globe and Mail seem content to publish – without fact checking or even a cursory Google search – opinion that is full of inaccuracies.
Industry turns a blind eye to the ENGO and anti-pipeline onslaught in the media, and so probably deserves whatever fate it will eventually suffer if Trudeau loses his nerve over Energy East.
The real victim here is Canadian public discourse, which has become so debased that Trump-style attack pieces are just part of the media landscape.
Canadian voters deserve better.
Correction: I mistakenly used Canadian oil and gas capital expenditures figures instead of oil sands capex. The correct numbers are $34 billion in 2014 and $15 billion in 2017.