SAVE THE OIL SANDS! – by Carrie Tait (National Post-August 21, 2010)

Carrie Tait is a reporter for the  National Post, Canada’s second largest national paper. This article was originally published on August 21, 2010.

Alberta’s oil sands are twice the size of England. Alberta’s oil sands tailings ponds are, collectively, the size of Washington State. Alberta’s oil sands help subsidize continued wars of aggression against other oil-producing nations such as Iraq, Venezuela and Iran.

These three statements all make Janet Annesley’s Top 10 list, a David Letterman-inspired collection of the most egregious falsehoods against the oil sands. As the vice-president of communications for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), she is on the front lines of a he said/she said public relations war.

The oil-sands industry, she concedes, has been getting creamed.

“We were caught flat-footed,” she said. “The oil-and-gas industry was not being effective in engaging Canadians because it didn’t have the ability to connect with them emotionally.”

Indeed, organizations have been taking pot shots — as well as making reasonable and fair critiques — at the oil-sands industry for years. They reached out to citizens on an emotional level. But the industry’s wonky technical rebuttals went ignored.

Now, after two years of revamping its PR strategy, CAPP hopes it can trump, even pre-empt, its critics’ charges.

In September, the lobby group will release a new environmental and social report. A cross-country discussion mission is planned for October and November, and a white paper based on those talks will follow. Schools will be targeted, YouTube spots are coming, and print and TV ads are already running.

The new and feisty approach comes after a two-year introspection period. In mid-2008, CAPP brought in Peter Sandman, a risk-communications specialist, who charges hundreds of dollars an hour for his services, to address its CEOs and build a fresh strategy.

“He said, ‘Guys, you need to listen,’ ” according to Ms. Annesley.

The bottom line was CAPP lacked a solid understanding of what Canadians wanted to know and what issues needed to be addressed. The chief executives needed to listen before responding. So, CAPP commissioned opinion polls, met with governments and opposition MPs and discussed issues with organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation and Ducks Unlimited.

CAPP was in the process of changing, in part because its research showed Canadians had changed.

Bruce Anderson, a consultant at Harris Decima and National Public Relations, decided two years ago there was something fundamentally different about the way Canadians look at the environment today compared with how they did in the 1980s and 1990s.

In a project unrelated to CAPP, Mr. Anderson interviewed 17,000 North Americans, the majority being Canadian, to back up his hunch. Baby Boomers sent a message.

“For the first time, we’re really seeing a large number of people say, ‘I’m concerned that I’m going to pass on to future generations a planet that is in worse shape than the one I inherited, and I don’t feel comfortable that,’ ” he said.

Translation: Today’s environmentalists are more than just young liberals. They are regular Baby Boomers saving for retirement and fretting about their legacy. Right-wing and centre-leaning aging citizens–notably, men — have taken up the green cause, Mr. Anderson said.

He calls it “modern environmentalism.” The new greens believe corporations are trying to do a better job, governments have tightened regulations and real penalties exist. Boomers acknowledge their role in the planet’s woes and want change, but not at the expense of the economy.

This research caught CAPP’s attention. The organization hired Mr. Anderson to query Canadians on how they viewed the oil sands. It was all part of the listening process to pinpoint what CAPP should focus on.

He polled people this year in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver — areas more likely to snub the oil sands. He also identified respondents by political stripe.

When asked, What is the best goal when it comes to the oil sands? the majority of those polled, regardless of political affiliation, said they should be developed with an effort to limit environmental damage.

Fully 79% of those who identified as Liberal went down this path; 78% of both Conservative and Bloc Quebecois respondents opted for this answer; 65% of NDP supporters agreed; and 58% of Canada’s Green Party supporters went this way.

About 4% of Conservatives said the oil sands should be stopped altogether, with 12% of Liberals, 20% of BQ, 31% of NDP supporters, and 38% of the Greens agreeing. The rest said the oil sands should be developed with a focus solely on maximizing their full economic benefit.

Those perceived to be hard-core environmentalists, or at least staunch dissenters, came out much softer than traditionally believed. With support from these surprising corners, and footnoted support from traditional supporters, CAPP could focus: Canadians were in favour of the oil sands, it reasoned. They just needed to see and hear tangible environmental progress.
CAPP will deliver such information in September, in the form of an industry report on issues such as water use, greenhouse gas, social issues and other key areas of concern.

This is the first tangible piece of evidence on how the oil-sands industry is doing as a whole with respect to the environment and social concerns. All of the oil-sands players, save for Husky Energy Inc., which is not a CAPP member, were included in the report.

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