‘You win some, you lose some’

In this week’s newsletter, we get into a story about an oil giant lobbying to bend pollution rules — one of many examples of the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry, and why we try to uncover it all

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Man in a rainjacket stands in front of oil storage tanks spelling Irving.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

That might be the slogan of all lobbyists and politicians in Ottawa — and it was certainly the approach Irving Oil took last year, according to documents I got my hands on for my latest investigation.

This story, however, is about more than persistent lobbying. It’s a reminder of how oil and gas companies are adept at diverting political and public attention towards dealing with their concerns, on their terms — and away from the fact that fossil fuels are driving the climate crisis. 

To recap: Irving Oil asked the federal government to change some pollution rules to favour its Atlantic Canada refinery. Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault rejected the request in a letter sent in early January last year. Changing it would go against the whole point of the program, he wrote, which is to cut down on the carbon used to make the gasoline and diesel that Canadian vehicles guzzle daily, and to help make low-carbon alternatives more available. 

So that was it, right? Nope. Officials anticipated Irving Oil would continue to press them on the topic over several planned meetings. As recently as last July, the government was still preparing notes to show it planned to stand its ground.

Irving Oil had its reasons for why it wanted the change. The federal government had its reasons for not budging. In a sense, you could say this is part of the normal back-and-forth of Ottawa politics. You win some, you lose some.

But it’s more than that. Irving Oil argued that not getting what it wanted could “negatively impact” not only its own business, but the “regional economy and potential job creation.” That argument was echoed by New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs (a former Irving Oil executive) and by federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre (who wants to scorch several climate policies). As a result, the economic impact of those pollution rules on Irving Oil drove headlines.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because the industry often tries to frame its lobbying against climate action in terms of economic or affordability impacts on Canadian workers and consumers.

Illustration of lobbyists handing a list of requests to former Alberta premier Jason Kenney, with file called "CAPP 132"

In January, for example, I reported TC Energy, one of Canada’s largest pipeline operators, had lobbied to exclude two major pollution sources from its emissions cap. The company said it was trying to advocate in part for “affordability” and that its proposal would achieve meaningful reductions in emissions “without impacting the energy supply that households and businesses rely on every day.”

Or take the story I published last summer on the Pathways Alliance, representing some of Canada’s largest oil producers, which lobbied to weaken and delay the emissions cap, saying the government should account for the “continued demand for fossil fuels by 2050” — and consider “flexible and cost-effective” rules.

In 2020 and 2021, lobbyists pushed for dozens of meetings with Alberta officials, quietly asking for public support without which they said they risked shedding jobs. In that instance, the province even dropped meeting discussions on carbon pollution from the oilsands when lobbyists intervened.

Prairies reporter Drew Anderson and I jointly reported how this same premise led oil and gas lobbyists to push for a long “wish list” during emergency pandemic relief meetings with government that ended up in a temporary rollback of environmental oversight.

Canada’s oil and gas lobbying has the ability to crowd out space talking about the importance of fossil fuel infrastructure in a way that can lead to decisions that lock in our dependence on these energy sources. It can dominate the conversation at a time when there’s an urgent need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and for governments to help consumers switch to cleaner — and often cheaper and more efficient — technology like renewables or heat pumps.

I report on these issues because I believe we need to hold industry accountable for any attempts to weaken or slow down climate policy and for its tendency to suck up the air in Canada’s environmental conversation. I hope I’m helping people realize there’s more to the story than refineries, pipelines or “carbon taxes” — that the global energy transition is coming, whether we like it or not, and in that future, there will be less demand for Canada’s fossil fuels.

Our governments and the politicians who represent us can either keep ignoring that reality, or get on with the business of helping us thrive within it.

I look forward to exposing more industry lobbying and filing more freedom of information requests that help me secure internal government documents showing how wide and deep it all goes.

They’ll continue to try and talk about the fossil fuel economy — we’ll keep framing it around the climate crisis. I hope you’ll keep reading. 

Take care and tune out the noise,

Carl Meyer
Climate investigations reporter
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P.S. We recently announced The Narwhal’s 2024 Indigenous photojournalism fellowship, open to a First Nations, Inuit or Métis photographer based in so-called Ontario who has a story they’ve been hoping to share about the natural world. Know someone who’d be a great fit? Forward this newsletter to them — the deadline to apply is April 15!
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Another Big Story

Speaking of the fossil fuel industry dominating public discourse on its terms: we’ve been keeping an eye on greenwashing — like reporting on the many complaints about oil and gas companies and industry groups making environmental claims that don’t hold up to scrutiny. Read all about these alleged greenwashing attempts over here!

To bring more attention to this industry tactic, Carl Meyer went on The Big Story podcast this week to talk about what happens when businesses try to fool people about their ecological legitimacy. Check it out here, or wherever you get your podcasts!

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POV: The Narwhal staff taking a bit of a break for the long weekend — we’ll be back and respond to your emails April 2! Tell your friends to sign up for our weekly newsletter so they don’t miss out on in-depth climate reporting when we return!

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