What’s Missing in Media Coverage of Canada’s Pipeline Debate

If you read any commentary in the wake of Trudeau’s pipeline approvals, you might have come across the sentiment that pipeline opponents are “environmental NIMBYs” and “angry mobs” who are “stuck in bondage to strange ideologies…eyes ablaze with truth oil,” having “demolished trust in agencies.”

Conversely, pipeline proponents are “realistic” and “rational,” able to offer up “informed discussion and courtesy” due to their nuanced understandings of economics and deep respect for regulatory processes.

“In the current political climate, if you disagree with an economic model or the critical assumptions underlying it you court the risk of being labelled an extremist or emotional, or simply unqualified to participate in the debate,” says Jason MacLean, assistant professor of law at Lakehead University and author of two recent Maclean’s essays on climate policy.

It’s a quaint notion: proponents of oilsands and pipeline expansion are mere technocrats only trying to do what’s best for Canada but are being tragically derailed by rabid protesters who don’t care about facts and figures.

But it disguises the much deeper fact that fossil fuel companies exist for the sole purpose of ensuring maximum returns for their shareholders.

Writing off industry opponents as blindly anti-everything ignores the incredible amount of sociopolitical influence the fossil fuel industry deploys to maintain its position in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.

Fossil Fuel Industry’s Barriers to a Low-Carbon Economy

“Private investments of [the fossil fuel industry’s] magnitude create an enormous inertia because the investors will want their money back and investments recuperated, and profit in the end,” Andreas Malm, author of Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, told DeSmog Canada.

“That means they will fight tooth and nail to maintain the infrastructures for as long as possible and for as long as they can generate revenue.”

Despite a clear and urgent need to transition our energy systems to renewable sources, dismantling fossil fuel-based infrastructure has proven “very, very difficult to do,” says Malm, who serves as an associate senior lecturer in human ecology at Sweden’s Lund University.

“Efforts to mitigate climate change have generally been very naive about how deeply rooted fossil fuels are in certain power structures related to wealth accumulation.”

“Their business interests are at stake here,” he concludes. “They want to survive. They want to continue digging fossil fuels out of the ground. As long as they are not challenged, we won’t make any progress on climate.”

From supercharged lobbying efforts to hefty political donations to high-profile public relations campaigns that influence even our deepest personal notions of freedom, the fossil fuel industry plays an aggressive role in contouring the politically possible  — all in an effort to keep opponents and alternatives at bay.

Fossil Fuels and the Making of a Carbon-Dependent Way of Life

A common refrain from fossil fuel companies and associations is that their products underpin our entire way of life.

In many ways, this is true.

As Bob Johnson, associate professor of history at National University in San Diego and author of Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture, points out, everything from cooking soup on a stove, to practising hot yoga, to flying across the country to visit relatives for Christmas, to protecting national parks from deforestation draws on the availability of cheap fossil fuels.

But it’s also no coincidence that we’re living in a society completely dependent on fossil fuels.

“That way of life had to be engineered,” says Timothy Mitchell, chair and professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University and author of Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil.

“The oil companies and others worked very hard to create a way of life that would become enormously dependent on oil and carbon-heavy: gas-guzzling automobiles, to interstate highway systems, to suburban life, to any number of ways of living to which there were always alternatives.”

It might sound conspiratorial. But there are many examples of fossil fuel companies directly funding efforts to deny climate change, including ExxonMobil and Talisman Energy (in 2004, the latter funnelled money to the notorious Friends of Science group, which claims climate change is caused by solar flares).

Mitchell says industry has also done a lot to encourage car-based cultures, including sponsoring and publishing travel guides, maps and ads in which the car became a centrepiece of consumer lifestyles.

Johnson said that’s been aided by the work of think tanks and industry associations — including the Cato Institute (started and funded by Charles Koch) and the American Petroleum Institute — creating a deep cultural relationship between concepts of mobility and freedom.

Johnson says an industry film in the 1950s proposed a Petroleum Bill of Rights, taking the U.S. Constitution and assigning relationships between specific articles and petroleum, such as the freedom of movement and travel.

“These are people and institutions whose goal is to shape public opinion through things like children’s programming, editorials, buying up newspaper influence, having journalists in hand and subsidizing politicized science,” Johnson says.

As the University of Ottawa’s Patrick McCurdy has identified with his MediaToil project, multi-million dollar advertising campaigns by corporations have strategically evolved over the years in response to criticisms, with recent efforts targeting “lifestyle rhetoric.”

Enbridge’s recent “Life Takes Energy” campaign directly connects “dinner with dad,” “amazing journeys” and caring for one’s newborn child to oil and gas products.

While not technically wrong, this and other industry campaigns are designed to obscure the ways societies can actually make choices about the types of energy used.

Many of our energy demands can be at least partly met with a substituted combination of solar, wind and geothermal, accompanied by significant investments in public transit infrastructure, energy efficiency and smart grids. Municipalities can be key players in such scenarios, with the powers to amend zoning bylaws, limit urban sprawl via developer levies, approve bike lanes and cycle tracks, and even plant more trees to reduce demands on air conditioning.

There are many alternatives. But you won’t hear such ideas in fossil fuel advertisements.

Fossil Fuel Industry and the Purchase of Political Influence

But the fossil fuel industry invests in much more than public relations campaigns. Lobbying and political donations are also ways industry can leverage its economic capital for political influence.

In Canada fossil fuel companies and associations have lobbied the federal government hundreds of times since they were elected in October 2015.

Major players include Suncor (96 times), CAPP (84 times), Enbridge (66 times), Imperial Oil (62 times), Shell Canada (59 times), TransCanada (39 times), Northern Gateway (38 times) and Kinder Morgan (26 times).

And those are only the communications that we know about.

Under the current iteration of the Lobbying Act, lobbyists only have to log “oral, prearranged” communications, which leaves emails, texts, letters and speaking at a “non-prearranged time” wide open.

Duff Conacher, founder and long-time coordinator of Democracy Watch, says the ongoing federal cash-for-access scandal — in which people paid $1,525 to attend one of 100 Liberal fundraisers in private homes and have the chance to lobby Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and high-ranking cabinet ministers — was almost certainly taken advantage of by fossil fuel executives, even if that fact remains undocumented.

“It’s completely undemocratic and unethical for the government to keep this information secret,” Conacher says.

Fossil fuel companies are some of the largest companies in the country, meaning they have considerable resources to dedicate to toward activities like hiring lobbyists and potentially hosting or attending fundraisers.

Conacher also notes that while corporate donations were banned at the federal level in 2007, it’s still possible that companies use executives, managers, spouses and family members to secretly donate to a party and riding association using corporate money; an Elections Quebec audit identified $12.8 million in likely funnelled donations from corporations to provincial parties between 2006 and 2011.

“We essentially have a system of legalized bribery with our donation system and secret unethical lobbying,” Conacher says. “You put those two together and you’re going to have corruption of the decisions that cabinet ministers make across the country.”

The ‘Revolving Door’ Between Industry and Politics

All of those actions take place from the outside, with lobbyists and executives pushing for change either legally or otherwise.

But industry also has significant influence from the inside of governments.

“We see an easy trafficking between fossil industry players and government agencies: a revolving door between the carbon industry and politics,” Johnson says.

Powerful industry players in Canada have gone on to sit on environmental review panels, lead staff at the ministry of natural resources and lead political campaigns.

The embeddedness of industry players in the upper political echelon can have real world consequence, Johnson says.

“You end up with really soft regulations, really slippery policy language, the giveaways of mineral rights.”

For instance, Janet Annesley, the former head of CAPP and current chief of staff for Natural Resources Canada, has officially met twice with her former employer, CAPP, as well as members of CAPP, including Suncor, Encana and CNRL.

Tracing Fossil Fuel Influence Through Political Cycle

And these three factors — advertising, lobbying and appointments — all achieve maximum influence in our current electoral system.

Imre Szeman, Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies and co-director of the University of Alberta’s Petrocultures research cluster, says that for him, the approvals of the Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipelines are an outcome of Trudeau’s political calculation.

The pipelines, he said, go hand in hand with the government’s controversial backtracking on electoral reform.

“We operate by means of a government form that was established in the 18th century: post-monarchy, constitutional democracies that operate on a four-year electoral cycle,” Szeman says.

“Once again, we have a situation where governments are more concerned with their own electoral possibilities than making true, long-term decisions about what they’re going to do.”

Entrenched, powerful interests greatly benefit from a system in which politicians must think very short-term in scope.

Fossil fuel companies generate a significant amount of GDP, exports, capital investments, jobs and government revenues, which are good selling points for a government that must have numbers to show come election time.

Malm says the obvious first step to managing climate change — let alone solving it — is to put an end to any expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. Others have argued the same.

But political parties want to win elections. And fossil fuel companies will do everything they can to exploit that fact, in desperate attempt to maximize profits from huge capital investments in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.

It’s an extremely dangerous combo.

“When you have a very powerful industry that’s important to the GDP, it’s going to have major effects on what the government does,” Szeman concludes.

“This is a matter of social survival for all of us in the long run.”

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