Top Conservative politicians met with oil-industry executives at a private conference to map out strategy for ousting Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in a sign of growing collaboration between the Alberta-based sector and its political backers ahead of the federal election this fall.
The closed-door event reflects the deep ties between federal Conservatives and more activist elements of the Alberta-based oil industry that blame Liberal policies on issues such as pipelines and climate change for job losses and investor apathy that have dogged the sector, despite a broader recovery in energy markets.
The day-long strategy session, held April 11 at the Azuridge Estate Hotel in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, brought together some of Calgary’s most prominent business leaders and high-profile Conservatives and their operatives at the invitation of a little-known pro-oil advocacy group called the Modern Miracle Network.
Attendees included Michael Binnion, CEO of Questerre Energy Corp.; Patrick Ward, CEO of Painted Pony Energy Ltd.; Perpetual Energy Inc. CEO Susan Riddell Rose; and her husband, Mike Rose, head of Tourmaline Oil Corp., according to a copy of the confidential agenda that was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
All are board members of the advocacy group, which says it aims to “shift the conversation” on energy so that Canadians embrace “the miracle of modern hydrocarbons," according to its website. They are also governors of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), which represents the sector’s largest companies; only Mr. Binnion responded to a message seeking comment.
He refused to talk about the details of the conference but insisted it was not partisan while saying the group has held similar events across the country. “It’s a private event and even if I wanted to comment, I think it would inappropriate for me to do so,” he said by phone.
The agenda makes clear the event was highly political.
Federal Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer delivered a keynote address, the document showed. His national campaign director, Hamish Marshall, and veteran Conservative organizer Mark Spiro spoke on a panel about “rallying the base” by using friendly interest groups that operate independently of the party.
Oil and gas lobby groups plan to participate actively in the coming federal election to push an agenda that includes more pipelines, lower taxes and less regulation. In February, Mr. Scheer spoke at a rally on Parliament Hill after a convoy of protesters arrived from Alberta to condemn Prime Minister Trudeau’s energy and immigration policies.
Industry supporters have been energized by the election of Alberta premier-designate Jason Kenney, whose United Conservative Party swept to power with a populist campaign that stoked industry grievances and turned on a hard-line pledge to sue environmental critics, cut corporate taxes and roll back policies aimed at combating climate change. Some hope those same tactics can deliver a federal Conservative triumph this fall.
“Let me say it this way: that like Newton’s third law, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction,” said Gary Mar, a long-time Alberta conservative who attended the planning session as president of an association representing oil drillers and fracking companies.
He would not discuss specifics, but said there is a growing desire to respond aggressively to industry opponents and left no doubt about the ultimate goal: “It is very much political, in terms of the action steps that people want to take," he said.
One session at the conference focused on deploying “litigation as a tool” to silence environmental critics and featured U.S. opposition researcher Mike Roman, who served as special assistant and director of special projects and research under Donald Trump until last year. He spoke alongside Arthur Hamilton, a lawyer for Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, which represents Quebec-based Resolute Forest Products, the agenda showed. Mr. Hamilton is also a lawyer for the federal Conservative Party. Resolute has waged a long-running and largely unsuccessful court battle against Greenpeace.
Another panel was dubbed “Paths to federal election victory" and was led by an executive for polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs who was introduced by CAPP president Tim McMillan.
CAPP has met extensively with officials from the PMO, ministers’ offices and department offices to lobby on a range of issues, but it is rare for the organization to take on such an overt political role ahead of an election. A spokeswoman played down Mr. McMillan’s participation at the conference and insisted the lobby group remains non-partisan.
“While we are not politically affiliated, we are unabashed energy-discussion promoters,” vice-president of communications Stacey Hatcher said in a statement. “That is our role as an advocacy association for the energy industry.”
However, Mr. McMillan has previously said the industry group will be more active in the coming federal election campaign, as it was in the Alberta vote. At a news conference after Mr. Kenney’s victory in Alberta last week, Mr. McMillan insisted CAPP is pursuing a non-partisan agenda that encourages all parties to adopt industry-friendly policies.
He also applauded Mr. Kenney’s commitment to take on environmental groups, which industry supporters target for taking money from U.S.-based foundations while working against pipelines in Canada and the expansion of the oil sands.
Businesses, unions and interest groups will face tighter restrictions and disclosure requirements under new federal electoral legislation that takes effect in June.
The government’s Bill C-76, which passed in December, imposes spending caps on third parties – such as interest groups – during the election period. The rules also apply to the pre-election period, which is a new concept in the Elections Act that will begin on June 30 of this year.
Brock Harrison, Mr. Scheer’s spokesman, confirmed the Conservative Leader and Mr. Marshall spoke at this month’s strategy session. He said Mr. Scheer has committed to ending “foreign-funded interference” in pipeline regulatory hearings but did not say whether that would include targeting environmental groups with audits or through litigation.
“These are the groups we will actively work to oppose and keep out of Canada’s regulatory process,” he said.
Mr. Scheer and Conservative Party MPs have echoed industry concerns about the Liberal government’s carbon taxes and other climate-change regulations; about legislation to overhaul major project approvals; and about its decision to kill the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline through northern British Columbia and failure to support the Energy East project that would have carried 1.1 million barrels a day of crude through Ontario and Quebec to a refinery and export terminal in Saint John.
But an antagonistic strategy risks alienating voters in key battlegrounds in B.C., Ontario and Quebec, said Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt.
“I know Kenney’s the big hero now, but if Scheer wants to go down that road and basically toss away environmental concerns, that worked in Alberta where the economy has been so bad, but the rest of the country’s economy isn’t like that," he said. "Are they going to listen to a leader who basically abandons the environment and promises that he’s just going to ram stuff through?”