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The relationship between governments and the fossil fuel industry in Canada is under the spotlight again after a high-profile staffer jumped straight from the Alberta premier’s office to one of the country’s most powerful oil and gas companies.
Critics say the move by Brock Harrison to TC Energy — the company behind the Coastal GasLink pipeline and one of the firms that pressured RCMP to enforce an injunction on Wet’suwet’en territory — is the latest example of a “revolving door” culture between government and industry, one that is threatening climate progress.
Harrison had been the executive director of communications and planning for former Alberta premier Jason Kenney since late 2020. On a Thursday in late September, he posted a statement to Twitter saying he was leaving Kenney’s office. The following Monday, he announced he would be starting as TC Energy’s manager of government relations covering Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“Looking forward to an entirely new challenge at a great Alberta company,” he wrote on LinkedIn.
Before he worked in Kenney’s office, Harrison was executive director of Kenney’s United Conservative Party caucus and chief of staff to the minister of Children’s Services. He also worked as director of communications for former federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, and was once communications director for the Wildrose Party, one of the parties that merged to form the United Conservative Party, which new Alberta Premier Danielle Smith once led.
He also worked as a journalist from 2005 to 2008 with the Edmonton Journal and the Kingston Whig-Standard.
Now, Harrison will be stepping into a job focused on securing the support of provincial government officials on behalf of a large, influential oil and gas company. TC Energy has already forged close ties with the United Conservative Party government — in particular through the government’s multibillion-dollar backing of one of the company’s former signature pipeline projects, Keystone XL, which would have expanded Canadian crude oil exports to the United States.
“Harrison has deep connections with conservative parties in Canada,” David Gray-Donald, oil and gas program manager at Environmental Defence, told The Narwhal. “And that will, no doubt, be of great benefit to TC Energy.”
It is not clear when TC Energy began talking to Harrison about the new job opportunity.
Harrison did not respond to questions from The Narwhal sent on LinkedIn. TC Energy said it would not comment on the matter “for privacy reasons,” and sent a general statement to The Narwhal.
“We abide by all rules and regulations in the jurisdictions in which we operate across North America,” a company spokesperson wrote in an emailed response to questions.
In 2020, with Kenney’s full support, TC Energy entwined itself in a complex Keystone XL investment with the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission, a provincial Crown corporation. The deal, which involved multiple numbered companies and an opaque management structure, made it possible for Alberta to commit up to $7.5 billion to support the pipeline project.
Harrison was working for Kenney as TC Energy was lobbying the premier’s office for “government assistance” on the project, lobbying disclosure filings show.
After U.S. President Joe Biden revoked the pipeline’s permit, leaving the province on the hook for $1.3 billion, Kenney’s energy minister launched a trade challenge, during which lawyers for the Crown corporation used the investment deal with TC Energy as part of their legal argument.
The company’s latest lobbying filing, dated mid-October, shows it continued to lobby Kenney’s office over the summer and fall of 2022 to discuss winding down the pipeline project.
During this time, it was also lobbying the premier’s office on “maintaining and growing market access for Alberta and North American gas production,” as well as on the province’s electricity market including the planned coal power phase-out, the filing shows.
Harrison was “working right alongside politicians, getting those relationships and expertise,” Gray-Donald said.
“We see this in how the oil and gas industry has worked in Canada — having very close relationships with both politicians and government officials, having strong presence at all levels of government and the political apparatus.”
When Harrison worked for Scheer, he was lobbied by the now-defunct Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, which counted TC Energy as a member.
Having close, existing connections with people in government helps lobbyists create long-term relationships with decision makers, Gray-Donald said, adding these relationships help influence politicians’ and bureaucrats’ perceptions of an issue, and can crowd out competing perspectives.
Lobbying is often used to achieve narrow outcomes for a corporation, like obtaining market access for its products or getting out of a regulatory requirement it considers too costly or time consuming, according to a 2019 report by the B.C. and Saskatchewan offices of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Corporate Mapping Project.
Lobbyists achieve this by ingratiating themselves with decision makers, ultimately becoming seen as “reliable allies” whose expertise is trusted and whose viewpoints come to mind “more quickly than others when it comes time to construct policy or make a decision,” the report concluded.
When it comes to the oil and gas industry, these perspectives sometimes take the shape of climate denial or delay, convincing governments to approve infrastructure that can lock-in a dependence on fossil fuels as the need to decrease carbon pollution becomes more urgent.
“This is the activity that oil and gas companies are trying to do — they’re trying to push their narrative, their reading of information, to get what they want from politicians,” Gray-Donald said. “And it has an effect of drowning out other information, other perspectives, other policy demands.”
Going forward, the TC Energy team has registered over three dozen staff members to lobby 14 separate provincial ministries and other entities — including the premier’s office — on everything from market access for pipelines and natural gas to Indigenous relations, nuclear and hydrogen power, electricity transmission and environmental permitting.
None of this lobbying activity is unusual for a major corporation and there is no evidence suggesting the company is breaking any rules.
Alberta’s conflict of interest legislation contains a number of restrictions on former members of a premier’s and ministers’ staff for a period of 12 months after their employment ends. These include limitations on lobbying public office holders or acting “on a commercial basis” on matters on which they previously “directly acted.”
Nothing about Harrison accepting his new job necessarily means he has violated any of those rules. Even if his job description did list duties that could contravene the post-employment provisions of the law, he would have to actually carry out those duties to be in violation, according to the provincial ethics commissioner’s office.
The office of the ethics commissioner would not say if Harrison asked for advice on whether he would be in violation of the rules if he accepted the position. The office “is not allowed to comment on individual cases,” chief administrative officer Kent Ziegler wrote in an emailed response to questions.
“The ethics commissioner does not give or deny anyone, subject to post-employment restrictions, permission to take new employment,” Ziegler wrote.
“In some instances, employers will modify the position requirements so a breach of the post-employment restrictions will not occur. In those cases, a letter so stating is usually requested by the commissioner,” he added.
“Even if the commissioner gives an opinion about particular employment, the person subject to the restrictions still remains subject to them for the year.”
Former members of the premier’s staff who violate the post-employment restrictions in the conflict of interest law can be fined up to $50,000 and could be held liable for restitution if they profited from a transaction related to the position, according to the legislation.
Ian Hussey, a research manager at the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute, which studies political and cultural issues in the province, said Harrison’s hiring “is the latest incident in the long history of a revolving door between the Government of Alberta and oil and gas companies.”
This revolving door, he said, “is one example of the corporate power that stands in the way of urgent action needed to adapt to and mitigate the increasing effects of climate change.”
He added the United Conservative Party, now headed by Smith, should make efforts to hire staff with diverse employment backgrounds. That, he said, would put the government in a better position to regulate the oil and gas industry and ensure it cuts carbon pollution and cleans up environmental liabilities.
Smith’s office did not respond to questions about Harrison from The Narwhal.
Harrison is not the first high-profile political staffer or politician to end up in the oil and gas sector. In 2013, former Alberta environment ministry spokesperson Mark Cooper left a Progressive Conservative government to work as communications manager for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canada’s largest oil and gas lobby group. Cooper later moved over to a communications role with TC Energy, then known as TransCanada. Prior to that, Cooper had also briefly worked for former Conservative federal environment minister Rona Ambrose in 2006.
And the issue is not limited to Alberta — former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, for instance, is now a director at Whitecap Resources, an oil and gas firm. In 2015, a private meeting in Montreal between federal energy regulators and former Quebec premier Jean Charest, on contract at the time as a consultant for TC Energy, would trigger a series of events that led to the downfall of TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline project.
The apparent revolving door between politics and the oil and gas industry is also not limited to conservative parties. In British Columbia, B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau recently accused the B.C. NDP of becoming too close with fossil fuel lobbyists.
Her comments came on the heels of the party’s decision to disqualify leadership contender and climate activist Anjali Appadurai, leaving David Eby to be acclaimed as the new leader.
Furstenau’s examples included Michael Gardiner, the NDP’s former provincial director, who has lobbied on behalf of Tourmaline Oil, a large natural gas producer, and Pembina Pipeline, which operates tens of thousands of kilometres of pipelines carrying oil and gas, according to the B.C. lobbying registry.
Stephen Howard, a former chief of staff to former party leader Adrian Dix, has also lobbied for Tourmaline Oil according to the registry. Both fossil fuel companies have argued against financial transparency measures that would show how climate change could disrupt their businesses.
Furstenau questioned whether these and other ties undermined the trust the public had placed in the government to act in their best interests.
Gardiner and Howard did not immediately respond to questions sent from The Narwhal. There is no evidence either of them broke any rules.
The B.C. Greens leader also claimed that Elizabeth Cull, the B.C. NDP’s chief electoral officer who wrote an internal report that led to Appadurai’s disqualification, “is herself a former fossil fuel lobbyist.”
Reached by telephone, Cull strongly denied this.
Cull, a former provincial cabinet minister and chief of staff to an NDP premier, was working for Hill & Knowlton Strategies in 2018 when she registered to lobby for the Resource Benefits Alliance, an association of local governments in the province’s northwest.
The alliance has endorsed LNG Canada, a multibillion-dollar natural gas project in the region, but Cull said that was not the work she was doing for the organization.
She said she was working on building a case for the municipalities to demand more of their fair share of revenues from a range of industries, such as logging and aluminum smelting.
“I take offense to being called an oil and gas lobbyist when I absolutely refuse to work for oil and gas companies, or other companies that I don’t think have the best interests of our province at heart,” she said.
“The main thing that I helped them do was put together a presentation, which said that they deserve to have a share of existing resource revenue, and new resource revenue. So to say that I’m lobbying for the oil and gas industry implies that I’m working for them [the industry], when in fact, I don’t, I wouldn’t ever.”
Cull said if the main reason the alliance had hired her would have been to support LNG Canada, “I wouldn’t have worked for them.” When she joined Hill & Knowlton, she said, she had laid out some ground rules, which included not working “for certain kinds of companies.”
The Narwhal asked the B.C. NDP to respond to accusations the party’s relationship with oil and gas lobbyists had become too close to effectively represent the public interest.
The province introduced “sweeping reform to increase transparency and accountability in lobbying,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Attorney General said by email.
The 2020 amendments to the Lobbyist Transparency Act “aim to enhance public confidence that government officials are acting in the best interest of the people of B.C. not on behalf of big corporations or organizations,” the spokesperson added.
“The changes increase the lobbying information available to the public through the free online lobbyist registry to include details such as who will benefit directly from the lobbying effort, disclosure of third-party interests, the existence of reportable political contributions, if there are contingency fees and if the lobbyist adheres to a relevant code of conduct.”
Eby was B.C.’s attorney general when these changes were adopted.
Overall, political watchers like Hussey are not surprised by what they see as the revolving door between oil and gas companies and governments, but they remain concerned by the implications of governments’ ability to make progress on pressing issues, from climate action to ensuring responsibility for cleanup of oil and gas sites.
“We’re in a climate crisis, and we need to develop a plan for how to deal with multiple crises,” Hussey said.
“We can’t look at the same industry that’s creating these liabilities — and not doing enough to clean them up — and continue to hire out of those ranks and expect to get different results.”
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