We don’t know everything that was talked about when over forty oil CEOs and senior executives got together last October for a two-day, closed-door strategy session at the Banff Springs Hotel.

But what we do know offers an interesting peek into the inner workings of Canada’s emerging petro-state. Here are three things you should know.

The secret keynote by federal Minister of Natural Resources Greg Rickford

Canadians have become rather blasé about the union of oil and state in this country, but the coziness between our most polluting industry and the minister who is supposed to be keeping watch on them is, by any measure, remarkable.

Minister Rickford's spokesperson told The Guardian newspaper that it’s no big deal that Rickford was giving political and media advice to the oil industry because “he is not involved in regulation.” But this is not the case.

[Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford]

As Minister of Natural Resources, he not only regulates industry directly, but also establishes the rules that the National Energy Board and other federal regulatory bodies apply.

It may not be unusual for government ministers to address the industry they regulate, but normally this event would be public knowledge and the text of the speech published on a government website.

This speech was not only secret – I got a copy by making an Access to Information request – but in it the minister was giving political advice to the people who lobby him.

It is worth noting what isn’t there, as much as what is.

For instance, the minister had all of the major oil CEOs in a room for a private chat, yet there is no mention of regulating greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector. This is remarkable: according to the federal government’s own data, the sector is now the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country thanks to the rapid rise in pollution from the oil sands.

Instead of urging the assembled CEOs to deal with their companies’ rising greenhouse gas emissions, Minister Rickford chose to attack those who are identifying this as a problem. According to his speaking notes, he said:

“As you well know, much of the debate over energy is characterized by myth or emotion. Unproven assertions are passed off as ‘facts’ and half-truths live a full life. You’ve heard them all: that the oil sands are a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions, when they account for only about 0.1 percent.”

The bulk of his speech focuses on what government and industry could do together to sell oil sands expansion to an increasingly skeptical Canadian public.

“Never before has the oil and gas industry been under such intense public scrutiny,” he told them, before acknowledging that what they were doing wasn’t working. “You are fighting an uphill battle for public confidence,” he said, adding that “our messages are not resonating.”

But they would not have to face a hostile public alone.

"Those of us here in this room have a responsibility to tell our shared energy story. We must build the public's confidence in our world-class energy transportation system, highlight our strong independent regulatory framework and show off our energy innovations,” Minister Rickford told his audience.

“Bottom line? We have to organize ourselves for success. And we have to do it together. Together. We can no longer look to others to do it for us."

Before turning to what that means, and how they plan to “organize [themselves] for success,” let’s take a quick look back at the Canadian tradition of secret government meetings with the oil industry.

The Harper government and Big Oil have met secretly to develop joint communications strategies since 2010

Minister Rickford’s speech was not the first such planning session involving the Harper government and the oil industry. Senior representatives from Natural Resources Canada and the Alberta government met with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) in Washington in 2009 and agreed to strike a steering committee to develop joint messaging. According to minutes of the April 2009 meeting obtained by Greenpeace, the Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Canada (NRC), Cassie Doyle, told the group “we need to meet an active, organized anti-oil sands campaign with equal sophistication.”

The Clerk of the Privy Council—the most powerful federal bureaucrat— then flew to Calgary for a June 2009 meeting with CEOs from nine different oil companies to confirm that they had the full backing of the federal government.

A more formal collaboration was launched in March 2010, when top federal and Alberta officials secretly met with oil executives in the CAPP offices on how to “turn up the volume” on oil sands communication. According to minutes of the March 2010 meeting obtained by Greenpeace, NRC Deputy Minister Cassie Doyle told the assembled CEOs that the “Government of Canada has been working with CAPP on [oil sands communications] for some time and it is now time to up our game… There is a commitment from government on this for the longer term as this is an issue for both government and industry."

This arrangement was then formalized in the Department of Foreign Affairs’ confidential Oil Sands Advocacy Strategy that listed oil companies and the National Energy Board as “allies” in the government’s efforts to promote the oil sands abroad, while environmental and aboriginal groups were labelled “adversaries.” The federal government then went further, denouncing anyone opposed to new pipelines as a “radical” seeking to undermine Canada’s national interest just before giving the tax agency millions of new dollars to undertake political audits of environmental groups.

Yet in spite of the fact that both government and industry have spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising and promotion, opposition to oil sands expansion continues to grow.

And now, thanks to the unexpected election victory of Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party in Alberta, the oil industry can no longer assume that the Alberta government will do as it is told.

A new twist in the job of selling the tar sands

Rickford called on the oil industry to step up their efforts and “engage both locally in the communities that are closest to the projects as well as nationally in letting Canadians know about the pan-Canadian importance of effective energy development.”

In short, he was telling them to engage in a ground war to complement their existing air war (massive advertising campaigns alongside the wooing of columnists and opinion leaders).

Unfortunately for his oil-industry audience, one of their first attempts to ‘engage locally’ turned into a public relations disaster one month after his October 2014 speech.

TransCanada, the company behind the much-delayed Keystone XL pipeline, was determined to avoid the same kind of grassroots opposition for their proposed Energy East pipeline that would carry oil sands crude from Alberta to New Brunswick. So they hired Edelman, the largest public relations firm in the world, to help them build local support for the project.

In the U.S., Edelman had been paid more than $51 million by the American Petroleum Industry (API) to drum up ‘grassroots’ support for the oil industry and to undermine their opponents. In their plan for TransCanada (which was leaked to Greenpeace), Edelman acknowledged that their strategy “has a strong heritage in the more aggressive politics and policy fights in the U.S.”

Most controversially, it recommended putting pressure on opponents by “distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources.” To do that, it advised trying to dig up dirt on these groups and to cultivate “supportive third parties who can in turn put the pressure on, particularly when TransCanada can’t.”

The problem with this kind of “astroturf” (fake grassroots) campaign— one that employs dirty tricks to smear project critics— is that it will only work if it isn’t obvious that the company is behind it. Once that became known, TransCanada took a huge reputational hit and Edelman was fired.

The oil industry didn’t give up. Taking a page out of the U.S. oil industry playbook, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) set up its own front group (Energy Citizens) in February of this year.

Energy Citizens was first established by the American Petroleum Institute in 2009, where it played a key role in the oil industry’s successful strategy to defeat climate legislation in the United States. The New York Times called it “another astroturf campaign,” in which “the oil lobby has taken a page from the anti-health-care-reform manual in an effort to drum up opposition to climate change legislation in Congress. Behind the overall effort — billed, naturally, as a grass-roots citizen movement — lie the string-pullers at the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s main trade organization and a wily, well-funded veteran of the legislative wars.”

So it was interesting to see that CAPP invited Deryck Spooner (senior director of external mobilization at the American Petroleum Institute) to Calgary last month to talk to CAPP’s version of Energy Citizens about the API's extensive "grassroots mobilization" efforts.

[Screenshot of Energy Citizens website in Canada]

The audio transcript of this presentation opens with CAPP vice-president Jeff Gaulin talking about their new strategy to deal with "anti-fossil fuel opponents", before handing it over to Spooner to explain the tricks of the trade. Spooner boasts that API has over 32 million records that include data on how these individuals vote, how they shop and how they behave online. This database— which Spooner says is second only to the voter databases possessed by the Democratic and Republican parties— allows API how to “apply pressure on elected officials.”

That this no-holds-barred, U.S. type of political campaign, where front groups advance industry interests, is coming to Canada, just in time for the federal election in the October, should be of concern to Canadians.

We should also be concerned that the Harper government is cheering them on.

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