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It’s Time for an Adult Conversation About Canada’s Oilsands

In late May, Canada’s “energy leaders” met in Toronto for the Energy Council of Canada's Canadian Energy Summit.

The theme of the summit? “Telling the Energy Story.”

“The aim is to raise awareness and improve understanding of the many ways that the energy sector influences the economy, regional development, innovation and aboriginal partnerships across Canada,” a press release proclaimed. “We believe that improved understanding will lead to better-informed energy dialogue and energy decisions.”

Sounds nice and all, but there’s a catch: the various players in Canada’s energy debate are telling very different stories.

While industry emphasizes jobs and economic growth, environmentalists and First Nations focus on air and water contamination, climate change and aboriginal rights.

The problem for the energy sector isn’t “telling the story” — it’s the massive logic gap between their story and the very real concerns of the Canadian public.

Right now, Canada’s energy debate is like a dysfunctional family dinner, with drunk Uncle Ed blowing a gasket on one end, Aunty Hilda screaming back and everyone else staring down at their dinner plates wishing they’d stayed home.

On the one hand, you hear rhetoric about oilsands destroying the planet and needing to be “shut down” and on the other hand you hear oil execs talking about extracting as much bitumen as possible out of the ground ASAP.

“Those extreme arguments are the ones that make everybody roll their eyes,” says Ken Chapman, former director of the Oil Sands Developers Group and proponent of triple-bottom line resource development.

“And there’s about 20 per cent on one side and about 20 per cent on the other side and neither one of them will ever bridge that gap.”

Left watching the shouting match are the 60 per cent of Canadians who aren’t on either extreme, Chapman says.

“The 60 per cent in the middle don’t know who to believe, don’t know who to trust and don’t know who to rely on,” he told DeSmog Canada.

Canada’s energy debate is stuck in what’s known as a “logic schism,” in which two sides talk past each other, impeding meaningful dialogue.

“In a logic schism, a contest emerges in which opposing sides are debating different issues, seeking only information that supports their position and disconfirms their opponents’ arguments,” describes Andy Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan.

“Each side views the other with suspicion, even demonizing the other, leading to a strong resistance to any form of engagement, much less negotiation and concession.”

Instead of leading the way, the federal government has been part of the problem.

In October, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Greg Rickford spoke to a closed-door meeting of about 40 to 50 oil and gas executives, urging them to get outside the board room and pitch projects to the public to win the public relations battle over energy.

“Enhance and expand your outreach. Communicate more effectively and clearly to Canadians with solid facts and evidence,” Rickford said, according to the documents revealed through an Access to Information Request.

Notably, Rickford mentioned nothing about improving performance in the oilsands — Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

CAPP spokeswoman Chelsie Klassen told The Guardian that industry is taking Rickford’s advice and “embarking on a different level of engagement,” including “moving to a ground campaign model to activate industry supporters.”

Since then CAPP has opened an office in Vancouver to bolster its “Canada’s Energy Citizens” campaign.

CAPP is trying to spread the message that oilsands producers share values around developing the resource sustainably and transporting it safely, CAPP’s CEO Tim McMillan told the Vancouver Sun.

While there’s no doubt some truth in that statement, it overlooks the fact that CAPP has fought new greenhouse gas regulations and successfully lobbied to weaken Canada’s environmental laws — preventing Canada from “acting responsibly.”

It’s little wonder that a poll by Alberta  Oil Magazine found that fewer than one in 10 post-secondary graduates find oil and gas industry associations credible when it comes to carbon emissions.

So who can Canadians trust and how can we move beyond the dysfunctional dinner debate?

“Everbody is trying to prove each other wrong on the facts and quite frankly this is now like religious belief. And it doesn’t matter what the facts are; it’s the belief systems that are dominating,” Chapman says.

“What is open yet is the adult conversation, as opposed to the elementary school recess conversation.”

This week, well-known environmentalist Tzeporah Berman stepped into that “adult conversation” space with an op-ed in the Toronto Star:

It’s time for a new, honest conversation in Canada. It’s time to recognize that the oilsands are, in fact, a technological marvel that took great Canadian ingenuity and acumen. It’s also time to acknowledge that when we began the exploration of the oilsands we did not know what we know today.

Finally, something most Canadians can actually agree on.

 “We’re going to be in the fossil fuel business for a while,” Chapman said. “We have a responsibility to do it better. [The leadership] will have to emerge, but the leadership isn’t in two extremes.”

With the new NDP government in Alberta, Chapman sees an opportunity for a significant change.  

“There are calmer heads, cooler heads, deeper thinkers and people who understand complexity now dealing with the issue at the political level,” he said.

The first step is acknowledging that the issues in the oilsands can’t be solved with public relations. No advertising campaign, faux grassroots outreach effort or multi-million dollar messaging exercise is going to address growing greenhouse gas emissions, habitat destruction, air and water contamination and treaty violations.

Demonizing the oilsands as a planet-killing monstrosity also isn’t going to move us any closer to a responsible management regime.

The first step to recovery is acknowledging you have a problem — and what we have in in the oilsands is not a PR problem, it’s a performance problem due to a lack of regulation. And it’s high time Canadians got the conversation they deserve about how to do better.

Image: CAPP

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Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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