By: Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
After a year of scathing billboards in foreign cities, a virtual revolving door of American politicians and Hollywood celebrities, and a very public trial over 1,600 dead ducks, it may be hard to imagine how Alberta’s oilsands could get any more prominent.
Just you wait.
“We’re planning to double down on investment on this campaign in 2011,” said Michael Marx of the environmental group Corporate Ethics.
“A lot of the campaigns that are taken against the oil industry single out oil as public enemy No. 1,” countered Janet Annesley of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. “This discussion needs to be taken at a different level in Canada.”
Hardly a week went by in 2010 when the oilsands weren’t in the news. There was the visit by Hollywood film director and environmentalist James Cameron. A trial and conviction against Syncrude Canada for the demise of migrating ducks in one of its tailings ponds. U.S. legislators — including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — came to see the oilsands for themselves and Alberta aboriginals went to Washington to explain their own view.
A handful of large corporations in the United States announced they would avoid fuel produced from oilsands bitumen. A coalition of conservation groups attacked Canada’s environmental good-guy image with a series of scathing billboards in the United States and Europe.
The Alberta government responded with an ad campaign of its own, followed by one from the industry. Provincial cabinet ministers fanned out across the continent to extol Alberta’s handling of the resource, while environmental activists tabled resolutions at annual general meetings in London and Oslo questioning the involvement of energy majors in the oilsands.
“This is a much larger public relations campaign than most of us expected it to be,” said Jennifer Grant of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank. “There is a lot of rhetoric floating around.”
How much the talk from either side has moved public opinion is an open question.
Ottawa pollster David Coletto, who looked at the issue earlier this fall, found that while Canadians tend to have an unfavourable impression of the energy industry, more than 40 per cent of them have a favourable impression of the oilsands. Coletto of Abacus Research also asked respondents for three words they associated with the oilsands.
“We basically found the country was split,” he said. Roughly the same number of people responded with positive words or phrases as with negative comments.
“It really was, ‘It’s about the economy and it’s a good thing’ or ‘It’s about the environment and it’s a bad thing.'”
That same exercise suggested that many Canadians took a certain pride in the oilsands.
“A lot of people talked about Canada and this being a Canadian resource,” said Coletto. “If the first thing someone says when they think of oilsands is ‘Canadian resource’ or ‘Canada,’ that’s connecting it with the country and some patriotism attached to it.”
Coletto’s findings of doubt mixed with pride were echoed in other polls.
A Harris Decima survey conducted last spring for the petroleum producers association suggested two-thirds of Canadians had a positive impression of oilsands companies. Yet respondents also overwhelmingly believed the resource posed significant environmental challenges. Almost twice as many wanted development shut down as wanted it to proceed full throttle.
And a Leger Marketing poll done over the summer for Alberta Oil magazine concluded Canadians were almost evenly split when asked if oilsands development should be halted until “green” production methods are developed.
That same poll found that fully one-third of Canadians didn’t trust energy companies, governments, academics or environmentalists for facts on the oilsands.
Outside of Canada, such research is harder to find. But Liz Barratt-Brown of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington said focus groups in the U.S. — especially after the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — suggest that people are starting to associate the oilsands with other, riskier forms of oil extraction such as deep-water drilling.
She said the council’s online opinion research suggests Americans don’t want their economy tied to oilsands oil and would prefer to move to renewable fuels.
“The vast majority believe we can do it and we can do it now.”
“People believe that the clean energy future is just around the corner,” she said.
“It’s a difference between what we believe can be delivered by technology and, given the scope of the technical challenge and the overwhelming growth in energy demand globally, how quickly we’re going to be able to deliver that.”
In an attempt to reach over the public to opinion leaders, the petroleum association has been sponsoring private roundtable discussions in Canadian and U.S. cities.
“We’ve attempted to get a mix of thought leaders from the business community, from NGOs, from First Nations and generally people that we think would be interested in a discussion,” said Bruce Carson, director of the School of Energy and Environment at the University of Calgary. He has been moderating the discussions at CAPP’s request.
“I think the oilsands dialogues are a perfect example of getting out amongst thought leaders with oilsands CEOs and having a frank and honest discussion.”
The environmental lobby is hoping to open new fronts in the coming year.
Marx says Corporate Ethics will try to bring its Rethink Alberta campaign to new countries.
“We felt that Canada is very sensitive to its reputation internationally. (Alberta) really valued its brand and it had no consequences for mismanaging the tarsands. We felt there needed to be consequences. We felt it was important to put their reputation at risk.
“We’re now looking to see what other parts of the world might be appropriate for us because of their tourism dollars in Canada. Perhaps China, perhaps Japan.”
Other environmental groups plan to focus on the financial backers of the oilsands.
“We’ve been talking to the three biggest pension fund managers in the U.K.,” said Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace U.K. “We know all of them are going to the companies and saying, ‘We want to see a much bigger, more pervasive risk assessment.'”
All environmental groups agree their message in 2011 will be that the oilsands are just the start of unconventional hydrocarbon developments that are not only riskier, but keep economies dependent on fossil fuels when they should be looking elsewhere.
“The tarsands as a gateway to unconventionals is the next big battleground — things like oil shale, offshore drilling, basically everything that is a last-ditch attempt to try and feed our global oil addiction,” said Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada. “The tarsands is one of the biggest frontiers of that battle.”
Annesley says her association will increasingly have to think beyond Alberta’s borders.
“We’ve been very focused on local stakeholders. We have not reached out beyond those local communities,” she said.
“We were surprised by the intensity of the scrutiny.”
All that scrutiny has led to one positive thing, though.
“We have people’s attention.”