Simon Doyle is a reporter based in Ottawa who specializes in lobbying and public affairs. Follow him on Twitter @sdoyle333.
Taking a page from Keystone XL, TransCanada is making an effort to get into communities earlier with meetings and information about its Energy East project, having started that process nearly a year-and-a-half before it filed its regulatory application.
The company has its government relations pieces in play, talking to MPs and provincial legislators whose ridings will have the pipeline going through it.
It's part of a broad effort by the company to try to ensure Energy East, a proposed 4,600-kilometre, $12-billion pipeline channelling crude from the Alberta oil sands to eastern ports and refineries, doesn't get bogged down in politics, as Keystone XL has in the U. S.
TransCanada has hired lobby firms in the provinces through which Energy East will pass. In the more politically delicate province of Quebec, the company has retained three firms – Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, Ryan Affaires Publiques and Groupe Conseil UDA – to work on the pipeline, according to the provincial lobbyist registry. In Ottawa, TransCanada is registered in-house to lobby for the pipeline and has also hired firms PVF Consulting Inc. and Ryan Affaires, according to the federal lobbyist registry.
TransCanada has been active in public relations, with a project website set up offering a blog, information about local events, "clarifications" about information reported in the media, and an "action network" for people to voice their support.
The company has held more than 100 community open houses along the pipeline route, which would go through Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. It's also holding private meetings with municipal officials, land owners, and negotiating with more than 150 First Nations.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government has been vocal in its backing of Energy East, identifying a need to diversify Canada's export markets, as has Alberta Premier Jim Prentice. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard have expressed conditional support amid concern about issues such as climate change and the protection of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River.
The Keystone XL pipeline, with a route from Alberta across the Canada-U.S. border to Texas, has been stalled for years after it became a political battle within states and in Washington between Democrats, Republicans and climate activists.
TransCanada declined to comment for this story as the regulatory process continues before the National Energy Board, but the company has said Energy East is an important link to safely transport western oil to refineries in the East. In Quebec alone, it says, the pipeline will support thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenues for the province.
Randy Pettipas, chief executive of national lobbying and consulting firm Global Public Affairs, said constituencies that outright oppose big infrastructure projects are growing, becoming better financed and more sophisticated as public trust about energy projects is lacking.
"You do need to recognize there's a group–it's a small group–who are just opposed to everything," he said, speaking about big infrastructure projects generally. "They don't want to come onside. Some of them make their living by being not onside. My point is that, at the end of the day, if social licence means having everyone onside, there's no such thing as social licence."
At least eight environmental groups, ranging from Greenpeace Canada to Nature Quebec, are campaigning against Energy East, which would transport 1.1-million barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta to the East.
Quebec activist Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, former spokesman for the Coalition large de l'Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante during the Quebec student strikes of 2012, launched an online fundraiser last year, raising $385,000 for a campaign to block the pipeline. Mr. Nadeau-Dubois is now working with Quebec coalition Coule pas chez nous to try to stop it.
Organizers with Nature Quebec, the Council of Canadians, Equiterre, Greenpeace Canada and other groups are aiming for a gathering of about 10,000 demonstrators in Quebec City on April 11, just before a meeting of premiers in the city for a climate change summit.
The groups are bussing in protesters from all of Quebec as well as other parts of Canada and the United States. Organizers say they plan to make their opposition to Energy East a major theme of the protest.
TransCanada was working with international public relations firm Edelman but dropped the consultancy last year after a leaked strategy document showed Edelman recommended targeting environmental groups to distract them. The document noted a need to counter "permanent, persuasive, nimble and well-funded opposition groups."
The most effective way to take on activists who oppose big infrastructure projects is to confront them in public, town-hall style meetings, said infrastructure expert Paul Giannelia, chief executive of Strait Crossing Inc.
Companies working on big infrastructure projects should use research, facts and evidence to challenge critics' points one-by-one in open community forums, said Mr. Giannelia, who led the $1-billion construction of the privately-owned Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island.
"Transparency in a venue like that is worth its weight in gold, because everybody gets a chance to draw their conclusions or opinions, and air them in front of their colleagues and fellow stakeholders," he said. "The fact that the number of so-called opponents has increased in number, so what."
Erick Lachapelle, a political science professor at Université de Montréal who worked on a poll last fall that found about a third of Quebeckers support the pipeline, said there are political risks in Quebec over the project. Quebeckers could increasingly see Energy East as carrying dirty oil from Alberta with little or no benefits to the province, where the population views its energy consumption as heavy on hydroelectricity and light on oil.
"It's not just a hot potato, it's potentially explosive," Mr. Lachapelle said. "To the extent that the public here is very much aware and concerned of climate change, it's very difficult to accept oil coming through."