by Martin Lukacs
August 11, 2015
Conservative government used public money on outreach campaign to counter criticism of controversial Alberta tar sands
The Syncrude tar sands site near Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta.
Photograph: David Levene/David Levene
Canada’s Conservative government spent several million dollars on a tar sands advocacy fund as its push to export the oil faltered, documents reveal.
In its 2013 budget, the government invested $30 million over two years on public relations advertising and domestic and international “outreach activities” to promote Alberta’s tar sands.
The outreach activities, which cost $4.5 million and were never publicly disclosed, included efforts to “advance energy literacy amongst BC First Nations communities.”
The Harper government has been trying to ship tar sands to the British Columbia coast via two pipelines, Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan, which scores of First Nations communities have pledged to block because of environmental and economic concerns.
With Canada’s federal election in full swing, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been on the defensive over his backing of the tar sands, which have derailed the country’s emissions reduction targets and, since the crash of oil prices, destabilized its economy.
According to the government documents, other outreach activities included research to support Canadian lobbying against a European environmental measure that would have hampered tar sands exports. Canada has succeeded in delaying the measure – the EU Fuel Quality Directive – several times.
The government also partnered with the International Energy Agency to “advance knowledge” about unconventional fuels like fracked shale gas, which several Canadian provinces have passed moratoriums against.
The documents were included in a July 2014 policy binder that was prepared for the incoming Natural Resources Canada Deputy Minister and revealed through a freedom of information (FOI) request.
Alongside its advocacy, the government spent $22 million on a previously reported advertising campaign to promote the tar sands in the United States, Europe and Asia.
Despite the documents saying evaluations showed the US-based advertising was successful, TransCanada is expecting US President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline that would cross the United States.
The documents indicate the government was funding dozens of projects between 2014 and 2015 to engage Indigenous communities and advance “Canada’s reputation as a global energy leader.”
Natural Resources Canada declined, however, to explain to the Guardian what these projects were.
This weekend Harper and several Conservative politicians launched an attack on a New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate who suggested that the exploitation of Alberta’s deposits may need to be curbed for Canada to meet its climate targets.
Bank of England governor Mark Carney and other high-profile figures like the United Nations climate chief have warned that the “vast majority of [global] reserves are unburnable.”
Scientific studies show that 85 percent of the tar sands should stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change tipping points.
While the Harper government has staked its economic vision on the full development of the Alberta tar sands, a crash in oil prices created a budgetary crisis in early 2015 and contributed to a contraction of the Canadian economy, which many economists say is in a recession.
Harper’s critics have argued it would be more sound economics to support the clean energy sector, which already provides more employment in Canada than the tar sands sector. Investment in clean energy can provide 6 to 8 times more jobs than similar investment in the oil industry.
During Harper’s reign, the oil industry has gained unprecedented access to policy-making. Adopting reforms lobbied for by the oil industry, the Conservative government passed legislation dismantling a generation of environmental regulations to ensure resource projects could be more easily approved.
The Conservative government has also targeted environmental and Indigenous organizations with arbitrary audits, muzzled government scientists, slashed funding to its Environment department and reduced its capacity for climate change monitoring.
“The Harper government gutted environmental laws and destroyed public faith in the regulatory system in order to fast-track pipelines, then wasted $30 million of public money on a public relations campaign doomed to fail. They seem to think that if they spend enough money, they can fool all of the people all of the time but that kind of arrogance is a risky re-election strategy at a time of low oil prices and rising concern over climate change,” said Keith Stewart, a Greenpeace climate analyst, who obtained the documents through FOI.
The opposition NDP, which is close to the Conservatives in election polls, has drawn attention to the economic drawbacks of heavy reliance on the export of tar sands. Under the Harper government, surging oil prices and exports led to the rise of the Canadian dollar, which contributed to the hollowing out of Canadian manufacturing, including the lose of hundreds of thousands of jobs – a case of resource mismanagement that economists have labelled the Dutch Disease.
Bank of American Merrill Lynch released a report last year that backed up these arguments, pointing to the loss of Canada’s factory production and jobs as a “key symptom of Canada’s Dutch Disease.”