A new report from the Corporate Mapping Project documents the reach of the fossil fuel industry when it comes to lobbying the federal government, raising red flags about what it calls a “troubling shift in lobbying patterns.”
The report’s findings suggest that industry lobbyists are increasingly focusing on developing closer, long-term relationships with federal bureaucrats rather than elected officials, especially since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office in 2015.
The report tracked fossil-fuel-industry lobbying over seven years, from 2011 to 2018 — finding that the fossil fuel industry vastly outnumbered other resource sectors, including the forestry and renewable energy industries — and analyzed how lobbying activities changed with prime ministers.
The result, the report found, is lobbying that’s increasingly focused on “deep state” connections, rather than elected officials, meaning the power of the fossil fuel industry lasts far beyond a federal election, regardless of voter appetite for climate action.
What that means, according to Nicolas Graham, a sociologist at the University of Victoria and lead author on the report, is there’s evidence of a sort of “elite policy network,” of long-lasting connections between high-powered and well-connected lobbyists and bureaucrats, “one that outlasts election cycles and develops over time.”
Proponents of the fossil fuel industry, like Alberta premier Jason Kenney, have long made a point of accusing environmental groups of being behind a “campaign of lies and defamation” against the province’s energy industry.
When it comes to lobbying, the report found that the fossil fuel industry reported far more lobbying of the federal government than did environmental non-governmental organizations — five times more.
“This idea that there’s a really, really well funded — disproportionately funded — environmental campaign defies the facts of a [fossil fuel] industry that is extremely well funded and very active politically,” Graham told The Narwhal.
‘Co-writing of policy’
Elected officials were the most-lobbied group when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in office, according to the report. That started to change in 2015, when Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister. Then, the focus of fossil-fuel lobbyists shifted — to bureaucrats.
The report, “Big Oil’s Political Reach: Mapping fossil fuel lobbying from Harper to Trudeau,” dubs this a shift to “deep state” lobbying, “whereby key government institutions and actors become integrated with private firms and interest groups that together co-produce regulation and policy.”
“It becomes this kind of a fusion of private interest and public bodies.” — Nicolas Graham
The result, Graham said, could suggest a kind of “co-governance and co-writing of policy,” in which industry groups take on an increasingly important role in influencing policy.
“It becomes this kind of a fusion of private interest and public bodies,” he added
Elected officials, Graham said, could be “seen as potentially not as amenable to influence from the oil and gas sector.” A strategic approach for the industry could be to integrate more deeply in government, lobbying bureaucrats rather than elected officials.
The report finds a network of well-connected senior public servants and mid-level staff who are in frequent contact with industry lobbyists.
Among the top 10 senior federal bureaucrats identified by the Corporate Mapping Project — each of whom remained in their positions after the 2015 election — the number of annual contacts with fossil fuel industry lobbyists increased from an average of around 145 contacts per year under the Harper government, to approximately 229 per year under the Trudeau government — nearly one contact per work day.
Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of Canada, doesn’t think that’s newsworthy. “Anyone who does government relations knows that you work at all levels,” Gratton told The Narwhal.
“If you’re leaving it to parliament, you’re going to be disappointed in your outcome. Because the public service is the body that generates the ideas that cabinet and ultimately parliament end up deliberating upon,” he added.
“They’re often looking to us for ideas of how certain policies can work effectively.”
Gratton is also not surprised that there would be an increase in lobbying under the Liberals. “There would be a very simple explanation for that, I think — the Liberals’ approach to public policy was far more open than it was under Harper,” he said.
“Under the Liberals, I think probably everybody increased their amount of lobbying, particularly with public service. But that’s because the Liberals fundamentally changed how public policy was developed.” The Liberals, Gratton said, took public officials “off the leash” and made them more accessible to all groups.
But Graham is concerned that increased lobbying of non-elected officials could mean that lobbying efforts can far outlast election cycles and that electing new politicians may not be enough for voters to cast aside deep relationships between industry and government — something the report calls “the close coupling of federal policy to the needs of extractive corporations.”
“For people who voted in the federal election for some kind of increased action on climate change, I think it would be potentially eye-opening to think about the way policy is formed,” Graham said.
Six lobbying contacts per day
The reports finds the fossil fuel industry reported 11,452 lobbying contacts with government officials over a seven-year period — more than six contacts per work day.
A full quarter of those stem from two major industry associations: the Mining Association of Canada (MAC) — which represents a variety of mining interests, including four companies with interests in Alberta’s oilsands — and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).
CAPP declined The Narwhal’s request for an interview about its lobbying activity, but sent a statement by email.
“It is not surprising CAPP is among the most active lobbyists in our sector,” Jay Averill, a spokesperson for CAPP, wrote in an email. “In effect, we are the main representative for Canada’s oil and natural gas industry.”
“It is our job to work with local, provincial and federal governments to find the best way to encourage investment in our industry while upholding the high social and environmental standards Canadians expect,” he added, noting that the industry contributes $8 billion in annual revenues to all levels of government.
“Our oil and natural gas industry benefits all Canadians and CAPP will continue to work with the federal government on making those benefits even greater.”
Gratton, of the Mining Association of Canada, rejects the notion that his organization represents the interests of the fossil fuel industry, saying his group advocates on a narrower subset of issues and was the first industry association that came out in favour of a carbon price.
Gratton told The Narwhal that one of the reasons his organization is top of the list in lobbying activities could be because it is diligent in reporting.
“We report everything. We’re very careful about living up to the intent and spirit of the act,” he said.
“I have trouble believing we are much more active than other industry groups active in Ottawa,” he added, pointing to a “grey area” in when meetings with public officials are reported.
The Corporate Mapping Project report points to numerous flaws in Canada’s lobbying rules — vague information about what was actually discussed at lobbying meetings, lack of names of lobbyists present, imprecise dates, no disclosure of fees paid to lobbyists.
“There are fairly straightforward ways transparency could be improved,” Graham said.
Lobbying efforts increase in what are known as “lobbying windows,” according to the report.
One such lobbying window was during debate leading up to changes to Canada’s environmental assessment process under the Harper government. The report found that — of the years included in the report’s analysis — the year between November 2011 and November 2012 was the highest recorded year of lobbying from the sector.
The report’s findings on lobbying windows are in line with a previous investigation by The Narwhal, which found that 80 per cent of Senate lobbying over Bill C-69 — the act to reform Canada’s environmental assessment process, that passed in June — stemmed from industry and related groups, primarily from the oil and gas industry.
The Corporate Mapping Project report found just 10 fossil fuel industry lobbying contacts with the Senate in 2016-2017. The Narwhal found the oil and gas industry met with individual Senate members 224 times over a 16-month period beginning when Bill-C-69 was first introduced in February 2018.
“In 2018–19 big carbon saw an opportunity to block mild reforms to environmental assessment and its Senate lobbying went into overdrive,” the report notes.
As The Narwhal reported in June, CAPP had described, in its lobbyist registration, one of the topics it planned to address a “grassroots lobbying campaign to ask Senators to make sure [Bill C-69] does not pass as it stands today.”
Leaders of major energy companies have acknowledged increasing their lobbying efforts during times like these in the past.
Speaking to CBC in June, Cenovus CEO Alex Pourbaix noted that the industry had ramped up activities to “an almost unprecedented effort with government,” in order to come up with what he had hoped would be “a workable bill.”
Not all industry groups opposed the bill. The Mining Association of Canada has supported Bill C-69 since it was introduced, telling CBC in June that it would provide more certainty and was an improvement over existing legislation.
Graham is quick to point out that not all lobbying is negative, and that it can play a legitimate role in advancing the public interest. What’s missing, he said, is an equalization of influence, or “equalizing access” to politicians and bureaucrats.
The report documents a “core of a small world of leading industry associations and targeted offices and individuals within government that are in regular contact with each other” — just 20 organizations accounted for 88 per cent of the total lobbying contacts by the fossil fuel industry, according to the report.
“Policies that would proactively support more equal access to political influence are needed to ensure industry is not over-represented when shaping policy,” the report notes.
Gratton of the Mining Association isn’t concerned about the state of lobbying activities in Canada, saying critics may be presenting “a sensationalized view that’s really not really a truly representative accounting of how things function.”
“Canada’s [lobbying] is very different from lobbying in the United States,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in darkened corridors.”
Gratton views Canada’s lobbying rules as robust, and says he supports multi-stakeholder engagement. “I’ll be honest, in this age of sort of populism and Trumpism, I worry that that unique Canadian way of doing things is under threat,” he told The Narwhal.
“I would hate to see a day when in the public policy is developed differently than it has been traditionally in Canada,” he said. “It’s a better way of doing things that’s better for the country.”
But Graham told The Narwhal that he’s concerned about the ways in which corporations can influence public policy in Canada.
“The economic power of industry ends up reaching into political society,” he said.
And without equal access to influence political decisions, the report warns that meaningful action to reduce fossil fuel consumption may be that much more difficult.
“In this time of climate crisis, transitioning away from fossil fuels in a rapid, democratic and socially just manner is essential,” William Carroll, a co-author of the study said in a press release.
“If we do not acknowledge and address the influence that the fossil fuel industry holds over government policy, we will not be able to take the steps necessary to adequately address the crisis with the urgency it requires.”
*Updated at 2:08 p.m. on Nov. 5, 2019, to clarify that in 2016/2017, there were 10 fossil fuel industry lobbying contacts with the Senate, not in total.