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The Globe and Mail

Canada's 'ethical oil' push gets tarred in British papers

Canada has held no less than 110 lobbying meetings with European and British politicians in the last two years to try to have Alberta oil designated as clean.

Jeff McIntosh/Associated Press

Canada made the front pages in Britain today, but not in a way that will do much for the national image.

"UK secretly helping Canada push its 'dirty' fuel," reads the top-of-page headline in Monday's Guardian. In the story picked up by several other papers, the London daily used an access-to-information request to unearth a series of memos in which Britain's top officials promise to help Canada overturn a proposed European Union move to label Alberta oil-sands petroleum as a high-pollution product.

Such headlines are monitored closely in Canada's embassies and in Ottawa. Even though Europe does not buy Canadian petroleum, Canadian officials fear that an EU "dirty fuel" designation could harm exports in other markets. So Canada has been calling in its political and diplomatic favours in London in an effort to get Britain to sway their fellow EU members in Brussels.

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The end goal, of course, is to change Canada's image: If Ottawa can somehow persuade the EU that its oil-sands output is what it calls "ethical oil," then Canada will look better on the world stage, and its export economy will gain. This has been a major push: As an earlier British investigation found, Canada has held no less than 110 lobbying meetings with European and British politicians in the last two years to try to have Alberta oil designated as clean.

But as today's headline shows, the effort could end up backfiring, by creating a British perception of Canada as a self-interested polluter. Indeed, the Guardian story was evidently designed to embarrass British Prime Minister David Cameron - who campaigned on a pledge to provide the "greenest government ever" - on the eve of the South Africa climate-change summit. The fact that merely being associated with Canada is described in a newspaper as an embarrassment shows how far things have fallen.

But how bad is Canada's press in Britain, really?

London's eight "quality" newspapers have mentioned Canada or Canadians in their headlines in 294 stories so far this year. Of this, 42 were sports stories, of which only three were about the Vancouver hockey riots; 22 were arts stories (thanks, Group of Seven), and 68 were travel articles, more than half of them appearing to be paid-editorial features ("Explore Canada's welcoming wilderness.")

Another 24 stories were about Prince William and Kate's royal visit to Canada, and fewer than a quarter of those concerned protesters disrupting that tour. Ottawa's non-confidence vote, dissolution of parliament, national election and Conservative majority victory together merited exactly nine stories.

Then there were the 22 stories devoted to the London Stock Exchange's failed attempt to purchase TMX Group, the operator of the Toronto Stock Exchange. Most of these stories were negative -- typical was the Times's "Canada stays out in the cold," arguing that the failure will hurt transatlantic trade.

But back to the oil: the word "Canada" appeared in the headlines of a total of six stories about Alberta oil. All of them presented the oil sands and their output in a negative light.

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Looking more widely, there have been 129 stories in British papers this year containing the phrases "Athabasca oil," "oil sands" or "tar sands" (the latter term is more popular in Britain). The largest share were about the large-scale public campaign, including many celebrities and arts figures, to get BP to end what the conservative Daily Telegraph calls its "controversial oil sands project in Canada." Many of the rest were about the U.S. battle to stop Canada's Keystone oil pipeline; regardless which paper, they tended to assume that the oil is an ecological threat.

About half of those 129 stories cast Canadian oil in a negative light (perhaps a quarter, appearing in the business pages, presented it as a promising investment). Interestingly, the negative stories appear equally distributed across the left-leaning papers (The Guardian, The Independent and the Observer) and the conservative ones (The Times, The Telegraph and their Sunday counterparts).

The phrase "ethical oil," by the way, could not be found in any British newspaper, quality or otherwise, even once this year.

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