Gooey Oil Sands Lies PR Flacks Tell: Call BS! – by Andrew Nikiforuk (June 10, 2011 – TheTyee)

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Nikiforuk’s latest ENERGY & EQUITY column includes a clip and send to-do list for decision makers.

Every year Gallup publishes a poll on the popularity of 25 industries and every one, sure as rain, ranks the oil and gas industry at the bottom of the list.

While the computer industry, restaurants and farming generally get positive reviews, banking, real estate and the petroleum industry all languish in a swamp of negativity. Nobody, it seems, trusts Big Oil.

Yet Canadian and Alberta politicians still think that they can polish away all the dirt and toxic waste associated with the tar sands (the world’s largest earth-moving project) with a growing mound of PR.

Almost all of this spin doctoring highlights the words “clean” or “responsible” and talks about a totally fictional country called “the foremost clean energy superpower.” The only people who live in this wonderful petropolis appear to be Tory cabinet ministers and Big Oil lobbyists.

Just last month, for example, Geoff Dembicki, an intrepid Tyee contributor, reported that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was thinking about hiring a PR firm to help its “Pan European Oil Sands Team” lobby for Big Oil and develop “a serious public advocacy strategy” for bitumen.

But Jim Hoggan, a PR guy who runs an award winning communication firm in Vancouver and started DeSmogBlog, argues that’s just another big, dumb idea. “I think the entire communications strategy is misguided. To think the real problem in the tar sands is PR is a mistake.”

Scraping goo and spinning it

Now anyone with an ear or an eye has been exposed to relentless Big Oil propaganda on the tar sands as well as some wonky green stuff too. But Big Oil has tried the hardest and spent the most to convince ordinary people that nothing extraordinary is happening in the world’s largest engineering project.

Consider the splashy campaign unveiled by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) last year.

One cheery communication compared the viscosity of bitumen, an ultra heavy crude, to peanut butter. Bitumen definitely looks, feels and behaves like asphalt but it sure as hell doesn’t taste like peanut butter.

In fact bitumen has yet to appear on the parliamentary cafeteria menu for a reason. The first Canadian politician to spread raw bitumen on his toast will loose his or her teeth if not a few internal organs. The tarry stuff contains sharp sand particles as abrasive as diamonds.

Another audacious PR message compared reclaiming a 40-metre-deep hole as big as the state of Delaware (the mine-able portion of the project) to farming. “I grew up on a farm,” says one serious looking worker. “I know what I means to have the land restored.”

Well, when mining becomes farming (and much oil-based agriculture has become such), civilizations just die. The fact that Alberta taxpayers now shoulder $15-billion worth of outstanding reclamation liabilities for the world’s wealthiest companies doesn’t appear in the message either.

Another snappy ad says that 80 per cent of the water used by the tar sands is recycled. That’s true. But it doesn’t mention that recycling this water concentrates pollutants such as salts and chlorides that foul processing machinery and that, well, make it harder to reclaim the landscape. Half truths sell better than whole truths.

But my favorite compared the consistency of 6 billion barrels of mining waste (that’s enough toxic material to stretch to the moon and back 15 times) to yoghurt. Bitumen slurry, which smells like swamp gas, contains many inedible things: cyanide, bitumen, toluene, clay, benzene, mercury, hydrogen sulfide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and naphthenic acids. But, sadly, yoghurt is not among the ingredients.

An empire of web sites

Now the problem with these ads, aside from lamely trying to associate an earth-destroying mining complex with a hellish carbon footprint to feel-good items like peanut butter, farming and yoghurt, is their total ineptness, says Hoggan.

For starters all the ads omit the obvious. If Total, Statoil and other companies can call bitumen an extreme, difficult and nasty resource, then why are Big Oil and Ottawa still talking about ethical peanut butter? “These ads only reinforce in the mind of the public that the industry doesn’t care,” says Hoggan.

Hoggan also thinks industry’s astroturfing is mighty counterproductive too. Take a look at AlbertaIsEnergy.Ca, a fake grassroots website seemingly funded by “bakers, mechanics, sales people, store owners” and the like.

But the Saudi-like oil promotion site is really bankrolled by CAPP, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and some of the most powerful organizations in the province. Another key funder is Alberta Enterprise Group, the propaganda and lobbying arm of Alberta’s notoriously corrupt Progressive Conservative Party. (It has ruled the province for 40 years.)

The proliferation of these “Clean Bitumen” websites is extraordinary. They include the fore-mentioned Alberta Enterprise Group, which tells Americans that the industry has “top-notch environmental performance”; the Canada’s Oil Sands, another CAPP initiative; the ever-eager In Situ Oil Sands Alliance which says the world demands “affordable and responsible energy” and the Oil Sands Developers Group, which promises that technology will clean everything up.

A tangle of uncritical websites that promotes a rosy view of industry, however, won’t harvest any blooms for a development that annually coughs up 5 million tonnes of petroleum coke on the landscape, says Hoggan. Denying the real environment record or obfuscating climate change issues doesn’t achieve anything except employing more PR flacks, says the communicator.

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