Two years ago, shortly after the last federal election when I still worked for a national environmental organization, I had a private meeting with one of the more senior lobbyists for the Canadian oil industry. Over a lengthy coffee I suggested that the recent election of his friends in the Conservative party for a comfortable majority mandate presented him with two possible courses of action:
- He could go for broke. Safely backstopped by his enablers in the federal government he could try and ram as many projects through as quickly as possible and steamroll anybody who dared get in the way; or,
- He could resist the temptation of Option 1, and play a longer game. With an eye to the volatility of the electorate, and rising public concern with formerly non-controversial things like pipelines, he could use the next four years to blunt the growing criticisms of his industry. In order to take the sting out of the climate change issue, he could reach out to stakeholders in a new way, adopt best practices to reduce pollution levels, and set his industry up for decades to come.
Clearly, my powers of persuasion are not what they should be! History records that not only did my coffee companion pursue Option 1, he did so with a vengeance. Egged on by the oil industry, in January 2012 the Harper government declared war on the environmental movement, deeming any critics “radicals,” and using Canadian tax law to make the lives of the charitable organizations as miserable as possible. The most significant rollbacks of environmental statute that this country has ever seen were rammed through in last year’s federal budget, without adequate debate or intelligent consideration, to expedite pipeline proposals.
I was reflecting on all this as I stayed up way too late Tuesday night watching the B.C. election results.
To underline what should be obvious to all the oil industry lobbyists writing briefing notes, no doubt feeling pretty good about the NDP’s defeat, all is not coming up roses. Yes, the B.C. Liberals were re-elected on a “business first” platform. But such is the skepticism about new pipelines in the province that even the Liberal platform supports onerous conditions that will be virtually impossible to fulfil.
Compounding the industry’s problems, further south the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is long-delayed, under scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and stands a good chance of being kiboshed by the Obama administration. And Enbridge’s proposed “Line 9” pipeline through Ontario is under fire from all sides.
For the oil industry, it was never supposed to be this hard.
How did pipeline critics so thoroughly, and rapidly, gain the upper hand in the ongoing game of Pipeline Whac-A-Mole? Simply put, Big Oil is reaping what it sowed. In a country where due process is respected, where people want to have their say, the heavy-handedness and arrogance of oil companies and the Harper government turned a previously obscure environmental issue (I mean, who really paid any attention to pipelines up until the last year and a half?) into a much more potent concern regarding the erosion of democracy and fairness.
I’ll be watching my industry friend’s next moves with interest. There’s already talk of sending oil through a deepwater port in the Arctic or commandeering massive numbers of railcars and shipping by train. Whether it’s one of these new schemes, doubling down on B.C., or moving forward some sort of West-East pipeline, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again with the expectation of a different result. A thorough reboot of its approach is manifestly in the oil industry’s own selfish interest. Option 2 is looking pretty good.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.