Natural resources minister 'aligned priorities' with pipeline lobby: documents

Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - The federal natural resources minister and the industry lobby group that represents oil and gas pipelines are "aligned on priorities, particularly on the need to expand markets," according to an internal government memo.

The document, obtained under the Access to Information Act by the environmental group Greenpeace, comes to light as Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver is in the United States burnishing the environmental record of the oilsands in an effort to bolster the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Oliver met last July in Calgary with nine members of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, where they discussed the "importance of communicating to Canadians" the benefits of the energy sector and environmental measures.

A ministerial event report after the July 5 meeting listed communications as the top two key issues discussed, followed by labour shortages in the pipeline sector and "support for the Government's 'Responsible Resource Development' initiative."

Natural Resources Canada has an advertising budget of $9 million in 2012-13 and a new round of television ads, touting the "Responsible Resource Development" theme, are currently airing.

Greenpeace climate researcher Keith Stewart says the Conservatives still haven't brought in greenhouse gas regulations for the oilsands sector that were promised in 2008, opting instead for a pure communications strategy.

The minister's meeting with the pipeline lobby group was summarized afterwards with the following "event outcome" description: "Participants aligned on priorities, particularly need to expand markets."

Oliver spoke today at an oil refinery in Houston, Texas, where he said importing Canadian crude would help meet American demand "while virtually eliminating the U.S.'s reliance on other less stable and less environmentally responsible sources of supply."

Oliver also noted how Canadian oil production is creating jobs on both sides of the border.

It's all part of a broad communications strategy by the Conservatives that dates back to 2010, when government officials met with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and agreed on "upping their game."

"The approach would not just 'turn up the volume' on the existing approach — it would change tact (sic) and address perceptions by showing that the issues are being addressed and we have the right attitude," according to a March 2010 memo.

Natural Resources Canada ran extensive focus groups last summer to fine tune an ad campaign designed to convince Canadians of the industrial benefits and environmental stewardship of the energy sector — particularly the oilsands.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, meanwhile, is running its own campaign called "Responsible Canadian Energy" that plumbs the same themes.

"This is an industry that has an actual environmental performance problem," said Greenpeace's Stewart. "But both government and industry treat it as a public relations problem ... as if they can buy their way towards having a social licence."

A new "Responsible Resource Development" television ad campaign appears to have begun recently.

But Natural Resources is flatly refusing to say when the latest round of taxpayer-funded advertising began or how long those TV ads will run — instead, referring The Canadian Press to the government's annual advertising report, which is likely to be released sometime in 2014.