It was the worst publicity Alberta could ask for: 1,600 ducks landed on an oil sands tailings pond near Fort McMurray in April, 2008. In the weeks and months that followed, heart-wrenching images of distressed waterfowl – coated in toxic sludge – were beamed around the world. Almost all the birds perished.
It was a moment that sealed Alberta, in the minds of people around the globe, as the home of the world’s dirtiest oil. And it’s a perception that’s still prevalent.
As U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline looms, the relentless barrage of negative publicity about “tar sands” and “dirty oil” remains the battlefront along which a small army of Alberta diplomats and politicians stand. They’re slogging it out in the trenches of public opinion in their quest to convince people that the oil sands are a source of sustainable, environmentally responsible energy, not to mention a crucial part of Canada’s economy – oil sands-related investment is expected to pour $79.4 billion into federal and provincial coffers between 2012 and 2035, and generate $172 billion in wages and salaries, according to a 2012 Conference Board of Canada report.
Despite their efforts, the reaction to most oil industry initiatives is inevitably described as mixed, if not downright hostile, on both sides of the border.
A Nanos Research poll from April showed 74 per cent of Americans support the Keystone XL pipeline, compared to 68 per cent of Canadians. Another poll found that in 2012, 37 per cent of Quebecers had a positive view of oil sands development, as compared to 80 per cent of Albertans.
Why is this so, especially when Alberta Premier Alison Redford continues her efforts to lobby for not only Keystone (she has visited Washington four times since becoming premier in 2011) but other pipelines within Canada?
The question makes Cal Dallas, Alberta’s International and Government Relations Minister, sigh.
“I don’t know the exact answer, but … there’s work to be done to ensure that all Canadians are aware of the benefits of the development of these resources,” Dallas says. “We all contribute to each other’s success, and it has never been more important that we work together.”
But David Manning, Alberta’s representative in Washington, D.C., says the solution isn’t as simple as changing the government’s messaging, or giving up environmental ground in favour of capturing the economic front. Manning says he and his colleagues are working to show U.S. politicians, media, administrations and think tanks Canada’s value as a sustainable and responsible energy supplier. “The reality of it is Canada often gets taken for granted.”
The clamour from the environmentalists is so loud that even if Alberta wanted, it simply can’t talk about the economic importance of the oil sands before talking about efforts to protect the environment.
“I don’t think the outreach has been defensive,” Manning says. “It’s been dedicated and committed to correcting this campaign of misinformation.”
Manning says the “misinformation” is coming from an extremely focused environmental community that zeroed in on Keystone as its cause clbre after having its collective heart broken over a major climate-change bill that failed to reach the U.S. Senate.
“We need to keep committed to talking about the economic impact, but you can only have that conversation after you deal with the sustainability question,” says Manning.
Peter Hunt of Hill + Knowlton Strategies, a public-relations consulting firm, says the PR challenge Alberta faces is a function of how quickly the province and its industry have been propelled onto the world stage.
“With the oil sands becoming increasingly economically viable, we now have a world-class resource that’s attracting world-class attention – from both sides,” he says.
“It has taken all of the Albertan players involved some time to adapt to the different environment in which we find ourselves.”
Here in Canada, Janet Annesley, vice president of communications for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says most Canadians support oil-sands development – as long as it’s done environmentally responsibly.
“The best way for industry to deal with (a bad environmental rap) is to improve its performance environmentally,” she says.
To win Canadians over, Hunt says you need independent, trusted third parties in place, who are stringently regulating the industry. He called the recent appointment of Jim Ellis – a former deputy minister in both the province’s environment and energy ministries – as the CEO of Alberta’s new energy regulator a “big step in the right direction.”
Manning agrees that industry and government can’t be the only voices touting the oil sands’ benefits. “Obviously industry and government have an interest in developing the resources. When others concur, that’s helpful,” he says.
“Canada has an amazing story to tell on the environmental side. Five minutes on that, five minutes on the economic benefits, and you have an incredible story.”
Manning called on independent groups, such as community organizations, and academics to join the choir – a call that’s been heard by Edmonton Chamber of Commerce CEO, James Cumming.
“Citizens should stand up and say, ‘This is who we are,'” he says. “All Albertans need to get on the bandwagon and start talking the talk.”
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