Oil and gas industry lobbyists far outgun their environmental counterparts in the battle for influence over climate legislation, a joint investigation by Canada’s National Observer and the Investigative Journalism Foundation has found.
Despite a mammoth lobbying push in recent years, culminating in a record number of meetings with federal government officials in 2022, environmental groups still find themselves in an impossible race with fossil fuel lobbyists who are similarly upping their lobbying game, according to our investigation.
We used data from the federal registry of lobbyists to track meetings that key subsets of both lobbying sectors had with the government, seeking to represent the push and pull for influence over climate legislation. In 2022, environmental groups we tracked hit a record high, logging 961 meetings with government officials. However, oil and gas lobbyists logged 1,372 meetings in the same year, 40 per cent more than their green counterparts.
Getting a foot through the door to make your voice heard does not necessarily mean your advice will be heeded. The considerable lobbying push from environmental and climate advocacy groups to rein in the world’s most polluting industries has so far failed to stop the expansion of fossil fuel extraction. In Canada, the fossil fuel industry is responsible for about a third of the country’s planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions at a time when scientists are stressing we need to start phasing out fossil fuels to limit global temperature rise.
An important aspect of lobbying is who you’re able to meet with, explained Julia Levin, national climate program manager with Environmental Defence, which registered 155 meetings with federal officials in 2022.
According to our investigation, environmental groups get the warmest reception from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), led by minister Steven Guilbeault, once a climate activist himself. In 2022, environmental lobbyists had 341 meetings with the department. However, they struggle to get meetings with certain influential departments like Finance Canada, Levin said, noting climate policy is not the sole purview of ECCC.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is one of the most important ministers, developing budgets that “make or break climate action,” Levin said, which is why the oil and gas industry understands this and “incessantly” lobbies the finance department.
Despite a mammoth lobbying push in recent years, environmental groups still find themselves in an impossible race with fossil fuel lobbyists, according to our newest investigation on lobbying with @IJFMedia.
Levin said Freeland is important both as finance minister and deputy prime minister and "not having access to her is a major limitation."
We repeatedly reached out to the Department of Finance for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.
Our investigation examined who both camps met with and found significant inequities in access to some of the most influential ministries. In 2022, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) had 318 reported meetings with oil and gas lobbyists and only 59 with environmental groups. Finance Canada accepted 104 meetings with oil and gas lobbyists in the same year and only 22 with environmental groups.
A response from Nature Canada said overall access under the Liberal government has been “fairly good.” However, some departments are industry-dominated, which presents internal conflicts and makes them less inclined to meet with environmental groups. For example, “Natural Resources Canada has a mandate to promote the competitiveness of Canada’s logging industry, but at the same time, it is the lead department for monitoring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions from the logging sector.”
When asked if the environment ministry under Guilbeault consciously decided to grant environmental groups more meetings, Kaitlin Power, press secretary for ECCC, said protecting the environment and addressing the climate crisis requires collaboration between many groups. In an emailed statement, she said ECCC co-operates with government departments and groups outside government.
The immense influence of oil and gas
Sen. Rosa Galvez, an expert on pollution and a key critic of fossil fuel lobbying in Canada, said fossil fuel companies have an "army of lawyers" to support their lobbying efforts. Also, they have an inherent leg up because "politicians tend to listen to [the industry] that produces money, not that costs money."
Environmental Defence Canada, 2022’s top environmental lobbyist, has 15 team members registered with the federal registry. Meanwhile, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), a top oil and gas lobby group, has a team of 25 who are dedicated to lobbying the federal government.
CAPP also benefits greatly from Ottawa’s lobbying revolving door, where some former designated public office holders go on to work as lobbyists: its team has eight lobbyists who held positions in government prior to working for CAPP, four times as many as Environmental Defence Canada, which has two.
Galvez points to last year’s United Nations climate conference, COP27 — which saw hundreds of oil and gas lobbyists in attendance, including about a dozen from Canada — as an example of the undeniable influence of the industry. Those lobbyists were there to block climate policy, she said, just like oil and gas companies that lobby the federal government aim to slow the transition to safe, cheap, renewable energy.
We contacted the top 10 fossil fuel lobbyists for comment about their activities, but few responded in time for publication.
Shell Canada and Enbridge said lobbying is crucial to keep lines of communication open between corporations and government. Enbridge said its lobbying efforts include advancing low-carbon technologies such as hydrogen, renewable natural gas, carbon capture and liquefied natural gas (LNG). However, both renewable natural gas and LNG are planet-warming fossil fuels.
The Mining Association of Canada, which represents companies involved in mining as well as the oilsands, said its membership is “diverse.” When asked if the association could break down its lobbying activity, spokesperson Cynthia Waldmeier said they “don’t quantify our government advocacy by member interest nor do we advocate on behalf of individual members.”
Here in Canada, there is strong evidence oil and gas lobbying efforts are working, Galvez said. As reported by Reuters, CAPP (which ranked fifth in a recent report outlining the most influential corporations hindering world climate policy) was gunning for the federal government to cover 75 per cent of the costs for carbon capture facilities. It didn’t get that much, but in last year’s budget, Finance Canada put forward a credit that will cover 50 per cent of costs and will cost the public $2.6 billion over the next five years. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has seen a 1,000 per cent increase in profits since 2019. A previous investigation by CNO and the IJF found 11 of Canada’s largest oil companies received the same amount of funding from 2010 to 2021 while lobbying the federal government.
Finally, the number of communications recorded by oil and gas companies in the lobbying registry do not reflect the entire number of meetings. Those initiated by the government, for example, do not have to be reported. The registry provides only a “partial picture of that kind of privileged access,” said Nick Graham, who co-authored a 2019 analysis of Canada’s fossil fuel lobbying for the Corporate Mapping Project (CMP).
The Breach documented meetings initiated by NRCan with oil and gas companies in 2020, where the ministry referred to itself as a “champion” for the oil and gas industry.
In an emailed statement, NRCan said it meets with environmental groups, fossil fuel companies and other stakeholders in the energy sector.
“This includes meeting with various natural resources industries on a collaborative and proactive basis, with a view to building a low-carbon economy, assuring energy resource security and helping with the transition to cleaner fuels,” department spokesperson Anthony Ertl said in an email about how the department chooses which lobbyists to talk with.
The department did not respond to a specific question about NRCan being difficult for environmental groups to access.
The deep influence oil and gas lobbyists have while lobbying the government and beyond means environmental groups must push harder to have their voices heard, said Muhannad Malas, Ecojustice’s director of law reform.
“Public interest groups (including environmental NGOs) are increasing their lobbying efforts to counter the growing corporate interests … in the physical or virtual halls of Parliament Hill,” said Malas, noting the fossil fuel industry pressures government to “double down on the status quo and adopt false solutions.”
Graham said it was heartening to see the gap lessen last year as environmental groups pushed to keep up with their fossil fuel counterparts. But Galvez notes oil and gas lobbyists continue to push for more extraction, even if they’re well aware of the consequences.
— With files from Tracy Sherlock