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Big Oil’s Man in the Senate

Alberta Conservative Senator Doug Black worries that Canadians are illiterate when it comes to energy and he’s on a mission to educate them.

“If we don’t address the issues facing us now,” he warns, “the prosperity my generation enjoyed will not be enjoyed by the next generation.”

Black is a rarity in the Senate, one of only three senators who were elected by voters in Alberta and then appointed to the Senate by Stephen Harper. Given the discredit that august body has fallen into, though, he may not hold that seat for long.

During the first half of 2015, Black travelled from coast to coast in his quest to educate Canadians about “the development of our energy resources and to discuss ways in which Canada can responsibly maximize its energy resources to benefit all Canadians.”

But it’s an odd crusade. Instead of meeting Canadians where they mostly congregate, in malls, union halls, church basements and community centres, he’s meeting them in posh hotels like the Vancouver Four Seasons, Toronto’s One King West, Edmonton Westin, Montreal Hyatt Regency and Ottawa’s Shaw Centre.

[view:in_this_series=block_1] Black’s Energy Tour

That’s because his “energy literacy tour” isn’t aimed at ordinary Canadians, but at the elites, the people who are already well-educated about energy, at least from the industry perspective. The tour is sponsored by the Economic Club of Canada, whose “audience members are drawn from the most senior levels of Canadian business, industry and government,” the club’s web site informs us.

The site features testimonials from the president of the Canadian Gas Association, the chief lobbyist for the Toronto-Dominion Bank (also a director of the Canadian-American Business Council), and the communications director for an oil and gas service corporation.

They’re certainly up to snuff on energy literacy, which raises the suspicion that the purpose of Black’s meetings with the elite is to promote the industry and further the development of Alberta’s oilsands.

And the Economic Council of Canada has set up blue ribbon panels of industry insiders and experts to help devise strategies to achieve this goal. The Toronto session in April, for instance included executives from Enbridge and Kinder Morgan along with Brian Tobin, vice-chair of the Bank of Montreal (BMO) and former premier of oil-rich Newfoundland and Labrador.

At that meeting Tobin worried that foreign investment is moving to the United States, where the investment review regime is more “flexible” than Canada’s. And Tobin would know about the problems foreign investors face in Canada: BMO acted as an adviser to China’s state-owned CNOOC in its contentious $15.1-billion takeover of oil and gas producer Nexen in 2013.

Kinder Morgan Canada’s Ian Anderson, who was also on the speaker’s bill, said he couldn’t understand why “a couple of hundred” protestors would want to hold up his company’s plans to build a pipeline under Burnaby Mountain. “Where is this opposition coming from?” he asked his audience. “What fear is motivating it?”

But instead of addressing why so many Canadians fear growing oilsands development, the energy elite, with Black in the vanguard, pushed back.

Advancing “Dialogue” on Energy Future

Black, who is one of Canada’s top oil and gas lawyers, has been immersed in the industry for decades and has many leading oil and gas executives as clients. He’s also a senior Alberta Progressive Conservative fundraiser and the party’s former finance vice-president, and he’s not afraid to admit he represents Big Oil in the Senate.

“One of the reasons I ran for the Senate,” he states on his web site, “was to advance a national dialogue on our energy future.” But is it a monologue rather than a dialogue he’s advancing?

Black heard his clients venting their incredulity over the way the public was showing such intense opposition to energy infrastructure, as Alberta Oil magazine explains. How could the public be so ignorant as to not see the connection between energy development and prosperity, the oil executives demanded to know.

So Black set out the make the connection. In 2009 he co-founded the Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC), an organization with “a singular focus on one task: to draft an energy strategy.” It was almost like a service to his clients and the industry.

This rather benign sounding goal masked the real purpose of the organization, which Linda McQuaig saw as “a lobbying vehicle for dozens of extremely wealthy, powerful fossil fuel companies … all hell-bent on developing Alberta’s tar sands.”

Members included the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, Canadian Gas Association, EnCana, Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, TransCanada Corp., and many others.

Industry Drafting Legislation

The group released its strategy in 2012 after three years of discussions and meetings with various governments and industry interests. It was pooh-poohed by the corporate media, but an analysis by the ForestEthics Advocacy Association reveals that the oil industry — through EPIC — helped write the rules “that now restrict public participation on the environmental impacts of tar sands expansion projects.” ForestEthics documents the profound impact the EPIC report had in at least one crucial area of energy development — government regulation.

EPIC recommended that the “federal government must develop regulations that restrict participation in federal environmental assessment reviews to those parties that are ‘directly and adversely affected’ by the proposal in question.”

It also recommended that “the relevance and credibility of evidence presented for environmental assessments must be explained.” This precise language is now found in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012, on the National Energy Board’s website, and on the National Energy Board Application to Participate Form, ForestEthics notes. It’s just one example of many in the report.

Such a cooperative government response could be due to the efforts of EPIC’s co-chair, Bruce Carson, a long-time Tory insider who had been a senior aide in Harper’s PMO. Carson brought EPIC’s’ document to Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff, who promised to read it “over the weekend” and urged Carson to “feel free to give me a call at any time.”

Carson reported back to Black that he’d briefed Wright, who “seemed generally supportive.”

“Excellent, Need Nigel on side,” Black responded.

A year later, Carson, who earned a $120,000 annual honorarium for his work, was charged with engaging in illegal lobbying and influence peddling, because he broke the five-year ban on lobbying after leaving the government’s employ, among other charges. Meanwhile Black became a senator and took his seat on the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, where he could continue his work.

He outlined his mission in his maiden speech to the Senate:

All interested parties now agree that on an urgent basis we must find ways to export our energy products and to help educate Canadians about the importance of market access. For success, we need Canadians to accept that their future prosperity depends on our solving this problem. We must ensure that governments and energy producers have the social licence needed to make the critical infrastructure projects.

Black’s History of Industry Lobbying

Black has fronted for Big Oil before. In 2002 he was chief lobbyist for the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions, a group that appeared on the scene several months before the Jean Chrétien government prepared to ratify the Kyoto Accord. The CCRES was created by Burson-Marsteller, the PR giant that specializes in creating astroturf organizations.

The organization was framed as “a broad cross-section of Canadian industry,” but the money came from Black’s clients in Big Oil. CCRES pulled all the stops in its efforts to derail Kyoto, including expensive saturation TV ads in Ontario. But it couldn’t prevent Chrétien from proceeding with ratification.

Not that it mattered. A decade later, Black’s party was in charge in Ottawa, Kyoto was ancient history, and Black was still furthering Big Oil’s interests, this time by educating Canadians about the need for oil pipelines if we want continued prosperity.

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Donald is an author and adjunct professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He has studied the…

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