Edelman’s TransCanada Astroturf Documents Expose Oil Industry’s Broad Attack on Public Interest

Documents obtained by Greenpeace detail a desperate astroturf PR strategy designed by Edelman for TransCanada to win public support for its Energy East tar sands export pipeline. TransCanada has failed for years to win approval of the controversial border-crossing Keystone XL pipeline, so apparently the company has decided to "win ugly or lose pretty" with an aggressive public relations attack on its opponents.

The Edelman strategy documents and work proposals outline a “grassroots advocacy” campaign plan to build support for TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline as well as to undermine public opposition to oil and pipelines generally.

The documents should cause well-deserved embarrassment for Edelman, the largest PR company in the world, as well as TransCanada. 

But this is not just a temporary black eye for a PR firm and its corporate client. The Edelman documents reveal a broader industry campaign to undermine the public interest and attack the oil industry’s critics across the board. 

In one of the files, titled Grassroots Advocacy Vision Document, Edelman emphasizes that TransCanada would not be alone in adopting this kind of aggressive strategy. 

The document notes the oil industry’s other extensive astroturf campaigns (including Edelman’s $52 million campaign for the American Petroleum Institute) to promote the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking, defeat climate legislation and attack renewable energy:

“Companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and Halliburton (and many more) have all made key investments in building permanent advocacy assets and programs to support their lobbying, outreach, and policy efforts. In launching a program like this, TransCanada will be in good company with a strong roadmap to follow.” (Grassroots Advocacy Vision p. 5-6)




The Edelman TransCanada documents once again confirm the fossil fuel industry’s desperate and expensive “permanent advocacy assets and programs” designed to attack grassroots organizers, nonprofits and charities, and ordinary citizens who are concerned about further fossil fuel infrastructure investments in an era of increasingly dangerous climate change.

The Globe and Mail, which broke the story of Edelman’s TransCanada plan, notes that the elaborate PR campaign plan is one more befitting the U.S. where aggressive PR has a longer history.

The Globe describes Edelman’s “reputation for aggressive tactics in the United States,” and quotes Greenpeace campaigner Keith Stewart expressing concern about TransCanada hiring Edelman’s services for "dirty tricks" PR:

“They’re bringing a much more aggressive, U.S.-style politics here,” Mr. Stewart said. “They’re employing pressure tactics that I would characterize as dirty tricks.”

But what I find particularly revealing about this story is how TransCanada has responded. From the Globe:

TransCanada spokesman James Millar said Monday the company learned valuable lessons in its battle over the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S., and is eager to enlist supporters and blunt the impact of opponents as the Energy East debate heats up. But he said it opted against pursuing some of Edelman’s more controversial proposals, such as quietly providing support to nominally independent pro-pipeline citizens’ groups.

TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline would ship 1.1 million barrels per day of tar sands and other western Canadian crude to refineries and export terminals along the Canadian Atlantic coast. The project faces stiff public opposition on both sides of the border, most significantly in Quebec.

Edelman isn’t coaching TransCanada on anything new in its PR arsenal. Most of the tactics described in the campaign plan originate with the PR industry’s lengthy and desperate efforts to protect the tobacco industry from accountability for its own dangerous product.

For example, the Edelman documents discuss efforts to put pressure on industry opponents by “distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources.”

Edelman suggests working with “supportive third parties who can in turn put the pressure on, particularly when TransCanada can’t.”

As anyone familiar with the tobacco industry PR playbook knows, these buzzwords such as “supportive third parties” are old techniques designed to help companies that, like the tobacco industry, don’t have much credibility with the public.

The idea is to get “independent experts” and credible-sounding front groups like the “Global Climate Coalition” or the “Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide” to parrot your message and play defense on your behalf because the public doesn’t trust you. You’re an oil company that makes money off pollution. You have zero credibility. So you follow the shady PR advice, "Put your words in someone else's mouth."

"Think of this as an endless war"

The story of this dirty PR approach is sadly one with a long history. There are scores of books written on the subject, including Climate Cover-Up by DeSmog co-founder Jim Hoggan and Richard Littlemore.

Just last month, Richard Berman — known as “Dr Evil” for his many iniquitous public relations campaigns — was caught on tape coaching oil industry executives to “win ugly or lose pretty” and to “Think of this as an endless war…. And you have to budget for it.”

It seems the oil industry is content to continue pumping tens of millions of dollars into deceiving the public and attacking its critics with the help of notoriously sketchy PR companies.

Rather than do the right thing, this industry is clearly more interested in fighting dirty.

Read the Edelman TransCanada Energy East campaign documents:

Energy East Campaign Organization: Promote, Respond Pressure (August 5, 2014)
Digital Grassroots Advocacy Implementation Plan (May 20, 2014)
Grassroots Advocacy Vision Document (May 15, 2014)
• Strategic Plan: Quebec (May 20, 2014)
Research Synthesis (no date)




New title

You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).

As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired five journalists over the past year.

Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 3,100 members

The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.

We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.

We’ve drafted a plan to make 2021 our biggest year yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.

If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.

B.C. ranchers, loggers unite in fight against plan to log rare inland old-growth rainforest

Dave Salayka has been a professional forester and tree faller for most of his working life. He’s laid out cutblocks, worked in Alberta’s oilsands and...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Magazines for members

We’re celebrating our award news with an exclusive, limited-time offer! Sign up as a monthly member of The Narwhal today and we’ll send you one of just 1,000 copies of our 2021 print edition.

Help power our ad-free, non‑profit journalism