How powerful is Big Oil? Just ask Regina city council

John Woodside
Regina city hall in September 2019. Photo via Mateus S. Figueiredo / WikiMedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dec. 15, 2021

Nearly a year after the oil and gas industry squared off with Regina’s city council over a proposed amendment to ban fossil fuel companies from sponsoring city buildings or events, a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives uncovers the playbook used to kill the motion.

Using details uncovered through an access-to-information request, combined with interviews with Regina city councillors, the report entitled "Big Oil in City Hall" examines what happened in the seven days between an initial vote on the city’s executive committee that saw the motion pass 7-4 and the next city council meeting that saw the motion unanimously withdrawn.

The amendment to limit fossil fuel advertising was proposed by Coun. Dan LeBlanc, using the logic that because the city had previously committed to use 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050, it should not accept fossil fuel sponsorship money. At the time, it was reported the sponsorships were worth between $100,000 and $250,000 to city coffers. The city describes sponsorship opportunities as a way to build “lasting brand awareness and loyalty with over 230,000 Regina residents … to strengthen your business image.” LeBlanc did not return a request for comment.

Despite the small sum, the response was swift. Premier Scott Moe publicly threatened to withhold more than $30 million that would otherwise flow to the city from Crown-owned utility SaskPower if Regina didn’t change course, calling the motion “absurd.” Similarly, Regina-Wascana Conservative MP Michael Kram wrote an open letter to city councillors calling the motion an “insult” and compared it to Las Vegas banning advertising from casinos.

The report details how after the motion was first introduced, rallying calls from politicians, industry groups like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), specific businesses like the Keystone Group of Companies and Federated Co-operatives Limited, and others like the Regina Chamber of Commerce served to mobilize fossil fuel supporters against the proposed change. The report does not argue the motion was killed because of a centrally co-ordinated strategy from Big Oil; rather, it sketches out the influence of the oil and gas industry on the province’s political culture.

“In the end, you had this coalition of industry groups and allies soliciting their followers and their supporters through social media to inundate Regina city council with emails,” said one of the report’s co-authors, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Saskatchewan director Simon Enoch. “We estimate each councillor would have received upwards of 1,000 emails apiece over that week's time span.”

That many emails were able to be sent because writing to elected officials has become a streamlined, automated process. CAPP’s Canada’s Energy Citizens group, for instance, set up a scripted email campaign to encourage its members to contact Regina city officials. That strategy was similarly used by others like Canada Action, the Regina Chamber of Commerce and Alberta’s war room, the Canadian Energy Centre. These scripted emails were then amplified by other local industry advocacy groups, according to the report.

“One of the things we found really interesting was none of the councillors said that any of these emails had any effect on them,” Enoch told Canada’s National Observer.

That’s because councillors could smell the lobbying effort a mile away and could dismiss the automated emails relatively easily, he said. What made the emails a successful strategy for the fossil fuel industry is they rallied supporters who then elevated a relatively innocuous proposal into a controversial issue, Enoch says.

“This issue became so radioactive that people who are more likely to support climate goals didn't want to touch it with a 20-foot stick,” he said.

"People they knew were sympathetic to climate goals were just so scared off from the issue because of the rancour and ferociousness of the oil industry assault … one of quotes was, ‘Don't poke the bear.’" #cdnpoli #saskpoli - Twitter

“I think what had the most effect on a lot of these councillors was people they knew were sympathetic to climate goals were just so scared off from the issue because of the rancour and ferociousness of the oil industry assault … one of quotes was, ‘Don't poke the bear.’

“It really turned off those climate moderates and made them rescind their support,” he said.

University of Regina associate professor Emily Eaton said that since the oil boom from the mid-2000s to 2014, the oil and gas industry has “really gained a lot of influence and power” over the province’s political terrain.

“If your government is relying on revenues from public spending from the oil and gas industry and less so on taxation through corporate taxes or personal income taxes, they start to change their understanding of who they're working for and accountable to,” she said.

On the municipal level, Eaton said her research has shown some rural communities have become “really dependent on fossil fuel philanthropy” to provide what previously would be considered basic services or infrastructure paid for by government.

“So you have a way of the fossil fuel industry being able to represent itself as essential to people's lives, to infrastructure, (and) to people's well-being,” she said.

Both Enoch and Eaton pointed to a public relations strategy used by the oil and gas industry in recent years to deflect criticism. They describe efforts to use workers as the face of the industry, rather than executives, in an attempt to make criticisms of the industry synonymous with criticism of the workers.

The report highlights this framing used by Premier Moe, who called the motion a “hypocritical attack on workers,” a CEO who described it as a “psychological blow to our employees” and Canada’s Energy Citizens warning it would jeopardize “30,000 jobs.”

“It's much easier to sympathize with the worker than with an oil industry executive, but the industry has acted against the interest of workers for the past decade,” said Enoch. “Even though they're making great profits, they've been downsizing … (so) I really think you need to drive a wedge between what the industry's interests are and what the workers' interests are, and (ask) are those always in unison, (because) I don't think they are.”

The debate over whether a transition off fossil fuels is happening is long over. With the authoritative International Energy Agency forecasting demand for oil to decline in every scenario it considers and outlining pathways to net-zero, Eaton said we’re entering a new era.

Governments and industries reliant on fossil fuels can no longer deny the science and know “the world is talking about an energy transition,” Eaton said.

“I think (what's really) behind this is the public image the oil and gas industry has is starting to slip, and they don't want people from Regina to be able to imagine there's a possibility of having a life and an economy — and a modern one, at that — without oil and gas,” she said.

In an email, Kram told Canada’s National Observer if a similar amendment was brought forward, he would oppose it again. He emphasized he was “not a climate change denier” and understands climate change is real and primarily human-caused, but said as an elected representative, he wanted to avoid solutions that cause further problems, like job losses, in an industry that has generated significant revenue.

“In this context, to treat these industries as though they are doing something shameful is unfair and ethically dishonest. This was especially the case with the City of Regina, which has benefited so greatly from these industries, biting the hand that feeds it with this sort of proposal,” he said.

The report identifies framing fossil fuels as vital to prosperity as one of the “remarkably uniform … sets of arguments and talking points” used by industry supporters during the campaign. The report explains this to be misleading by describing how the fossil fuel industry is often symbolically a national project, with supporters characterizing it as an industry operated for the benefit of everyone when in reality, it is a profit-driven enterprise for the benefit of shareholders.

Enoch said even though the report is focused on Regina, the industry tactics outlined are shared across the country.

“We've demonstrated what they can do when challenged, and I think any sort of urban climate activist strategy worth its salt is going to have to find ways to combat that kind of advocacy campaign,” he said.

John Woodside / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer

[Top photo: Regina city hall in September 2019. Photo via Mateus S. Figueiredo / WikiMedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)]