Canada’s largest oil and gas lobby group ran a political ground war that targeted voters in 13 Ontario “Liberal swing ridings” with billboards in “high visibility locations” in the Toronto area and 400,000 pieces of pro-pipeline literature sent via Canada Post, an ongoing National Observer / Toronto Star / Global News investigation has found.
The details of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ campaign appear in a flyer distributed at a government-sponsored summit in Vaughan, near Toronto, where the association had a booth. The flyer explained how the lobby group had engaged in a “ground campaign in Ontario targeting 13 Liberal swing ridings” between April 8 to May 29 — the period in which the federal government was deciding on the fate of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
CAPP’s campaign included 13 rallies across the country, billboards, a huge social media push and mailing hundreds of thousands of letters warning the public about their struggle to compete and gain access to new oil and gas markets, the flyer said. The Calgary-based group also sent 24,000 letters to “key decision makers” including B.C. Premier John Horgan, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and federal National Resources Minister Jim Carr, according to the leaked CAPP document.
The oilpatch lobby group declined to identify where the rallies took place and which ridings it targeted, but its branding and logos appeared at multiple rallies across the country last spring, including at least one rally featuring Conservative MPs in Ottawa. CAPP said that it promoted this Ottawa rally, held on May 23, but didn't organize it.
The political implications of the campaign has prompted at least one political insider to call it “a warning shot” from one of Canada’s largest and most powerful lobby groups for the upcoming federal election.
'I've never seen the oil industry lobby like this before'
Critics also say CAPP’s conspicuously-timed advertising – launched amid Ontario’s provincial election campaign and targeting 13 ridings in Ontario alone – is unprecedented and merits further review from the provincial elections watchdog.
The advertising material urges Canadians to “tell your federal MP to support the Trans Mountain Pipeline” alongside the message, “Is Canada closed for business?”
“I’ve never seen the oil industry lobby like this before,” says Keith Stewart, senior strategist with Greenpeace. “What is absolutely unprecedented, as far as I know, is deliberately targeting swing ridings in order to impact the makeup of the government.”
While CAPP was asking Ontarians whether Canada was closed for business, Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives were repeatedly telling voters in the provincial campaign that if he won the June 7 election, he would be "going down to the border and putting up a big neon sign saying 'Ontario is open for business.'"
Ford wound up winning a resounding majority government with more than 40 per cent of the popular vote and has spent his first days in office by beginning to dismantle provincial climate change policies.
Over the past decade, Ontario has been leading the promotion of climate change policies, by phasing out coal fired power plants, bringing in substantial support for renewable energy, and creating the cap-and-trade system with Quebec and California.
Ford's early policy moves would undo the legacy of former premier Kathleen Wynne. He hasn't introduced any alternative climate change policies to replace them and this now threatens a national deal reached by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with the provinces and territories in December 2016 to help Canada meet its international commitments under the Paris Agreement.
Oilpatch lobby group declines interview request
CAPP declined a request for an interview about its campaign in Ontario.
In a written statement, the group acknowledged the campaign was an effort to push the federal government to do more to save the troubled Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, after the company announced on April 8 that it was threatening to abandon its plans due to opposition in British Columbia.
“The timing of the advertising campaign aligned with the federal decision on a federally regulated pipeline deemed in the national interest, targeting federal Members of Parliament (MP’s) – not candidates of the Ontario election,” said Chelsie Klassen, CAPP's media relations manager, in an email to National Observer.
Two democracy advocates disagreed with Klassen's assessment.
“With this campaign they’re targeting both the federal Liberals and provincial Liberals,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of the Ottawa-based Democracy Watch. “They would want Ford in there because they know he would be pushing pipeline instead of windmill.”
Kevin Taft, the former leader of the Alberta Liberal Party from 2003 to 2008 and author of Oil’s Deep State, said the outcome of the provincial elections was going to have an impact on provincial climate change policies; had this election resulted in an NDP government like British Columbia’s, “that would cause more obstacles for the oil industry,” he said.
“To an outsider, it certainly looks like the campaign was designed to coordinate with the Ontario election campaign.”
Pipelines not an Ontario candidate ‘priority’
The lobby group’s advertising was run under the umbrella of Canada’s Energy Citizens, a group created and managed by CAPP to engage with Canadians and drive public support for oilpatch-friendly policies. The Energy Citizens have a strong social media following of more than 220,000 Facebook users — nearly double the amount of followers of the Ottawa Citizen, the largest newspaper in Canada’s capital region.
Elections Ontario would not comment on whether it has received a complaint or whether it is investigating.
According to the province’s electoral rules, a third party — such as corporations, partnerships, businesses and associations — that spends more than $500 in the six months before a fixed date general election on political advertising of some kind must register with Elections Ontario.
A spokesperson for Elections Ontario confirmed CAPP was not a registered third party during the election period.
CAPP’s written statement denies any effort to target provincial candidates with the campaign, saying, “pipelines were not identified as a priority for any of the Ontario election candidates, further separating the advertising campaign from the election.”
Although it's not clear exactly where CAPP advertised, a group of key Liberal swing ridings, identified in an electoral database provided by Fair Vote Canada, were won in the Ontario election by Conservative provincial candidates.
The oilpatch lobby group would not confirm where the billboards were placed, saying only that they were at "various areas throughout the Greater Toronto Area." It also declined to say which specific ridings were targeted apart from confirming that they were "federal swing ridings."
'It's the exact same language Jason Kenney is using'
Janet Brown, a Calgary-based pollster, noted that federal and provincial ridings in Ontario match up, but she rejected the views of Conacher and Taft that the campaign was meant to provide a boost to Ford.
"It's more coincidental that it happened during Ontario's election than an attempt to influence the Ontario election," she said in a phone interview. "I can't see a connection between the pipeline and the election of Doug Ford."
But Brown also noted that there were similarities between CAPP's advertising and the message coming from conservative politicians across the country.
"It's the exact same language (Alberta United Conservative Party Leader) Jason Kenney is using (and) that (Saskatchewan Premier) Scott Moe is using," she added.
Another pollster, Angus McAllister, who is based in B.C., said it was possible that the oilpatch campaign may have confused voters in Ontario where federal Liberals are "highly associated" with their provincial counterparts.
He also said that the Ontario campaign could also be effective at swaying people about the pipeline since voters in this province haven't yet made up their minds about the Trans Mountain project, in the same way as residents in B.C. who have faced a barrage of news reports about relentless protests.
"In B.C., the issue is so polarized, (so) a campaign like this in B.C. may not move people," McAllister said. "In Ontario, the issue is not so polarized so there's still a chance to influence people because it's still not a hot issue. You can still influence voters with messages about Canada being open for business about the pipeline because their positions haven’t been hardened."
Liberal politicians decline to comment
Members of both the provincial and federal Liberal parties declined to comment directly on the CAPP campaign.
In response to questions, the federal Liberals provided a broad written statement saying the party’s actions are based “solely on what is in the best interests of Canadians.”
Ontario Liberal Party spokesperson Patricia Favre said in a written statement that the two previous Liberal governments in Ontario passed an “ambitious agenda to fight climate change, including the largest single reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions through the closure of the coal plants, and a plan to put a cap on carbon pollution and use the proceeds to help people transition to a low-carbon economy while saving their costs.”
Greenpeace’s Stewart said that while federal politicians may have been the target of the CAPP campaign, its timing with the provincial election provided obvious advantages.
“I think provincial officials were icing on the cake,” he said. “(CAPP) is flexing their political muscle. The minute you start targeting swing ridings, you’re trying to influence who will be in office.”
In the past, Energy Citizens has said carbon pricing hurts the industry's competitiveness, stating that, “Layers of new regulations and policies, including carbon pricing, have made it difficult for Canada’s energy sector to compete and provide good jobs here at home.”
Doug Ford announced his plan to scrap the Liberal cap and trade plan and fight the federal plan to force polluters to pay for carbon emissions during the election campaign on April 23 — in the midst of CAPP’s advertising campaign.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that some of the wording in the oil industry’s is the same as the wording in Doug Ford’s campaign,” Taft said. The oil and gas industry is “a huge public relations machine that is extraordinarily effective in getting its agenda set,” he added. “These campaigns are unending.”
“If they elect a government that’s friendly to them and does what Doug Ford is doing — getting out of the cap and trade system, getting out of promotion of green energy — that’s all good for the oil industry, that’s in their interest,”
An “unending” behind-the-scenes campaign
The flyer featuring the details of CAPP’s campaign — a plain printout of a Powerpoint slide — was distributed at a biannual energy summit organized, in part, by Natural Resources Canada in Vaughan, Ont. on May 30.
CAPP had a booth at the summit’s trade show, where its members distributed the flyers to “demonstrate to the public the value of their lobbying efforts,” said an unidentified summit attendee who mailed the flyer to the three news outlets.
“It’s surprising that they would give it to anyone who just walked up to the booth,” Stewart said.
Titled, “Metrics: Canada’s Energy Citizens and TMX (Trans Mountain expansion) campaign,” the document touted the success of its campaign: “Facebook audience reach = 17,440,830; Facebook users engaged = 1,246,953; Facebook video views = 2 million; Twitter impressions = 519,000,” it reads.
CAPP’s public advocacy on behalf of the $7.4-billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion was on display in other ways in recent weeks.
A “Day of Support” for the pipeline in Ottawa on May 23 led by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce brought together “provincial and territorial chamber presidents, association heads, corporate leaders, union representatives and Indigenous leaders to advocate the importance of seeing this project through to the future benefit of Canadians,” reads a story published in CAPP’s magazine.
Participants met with Carr and federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, urging them to work with the provinces to “reach a consensus and use the appropriate legislative, legal and financial steps to ensure the Trans Mountain Expansion project gets built.”
Such a campaign isn’t unheard of in western Canada. “The oil industry when it wants to be aggressive can be extraordinary aggressive,” Taft said. “But by oil industry standards, running a campaign in a handful of swing ridings in Ontario, may seem aggressive in Ontario but in Alberta and in Saskatchewan and in B.C. nowadays, that's just routine behaviour.”
But the open acknowledgement that the group was targeting 13 swing ridings is “a big shift for CAPP,” he said. The organization “generally claims to simply try to inform government, not affect who forms government.”
Their activities, Stewart added, was “a concerted and impressive behind the scenes campaign.”
'How do we combat such strong advertising?'
Liberal political commentator Amanda Alvaro said CAPP’s targeted Ontario campaign could point to a more aggressive approach in the next federal election.
“As we’re gearing up for 2019, one of the things that would concern us the most…how do we combat such strong advertising and how do we make sure people are educated enough to understand it? Because people take ads as truth.”
Taft agrees, noting that the outcome of the Ontario election was "a big blow to Ontario and Canada's environmental agenda."
“Perhaps this is a warning shot. Perhaps the federal Liberals and other environmental activists should regard the activities of CAPP in Ontario as a warning as to what’s coming up in the federal election.”
“I have no doubt that the oil industry had an interest in the outcome of the Ontario election," he said, "and they probably were very happy with the way it turned out."