TransCanada Corp. is dramatically expanding its effort to win public support for its proposed $12-billion Energy East project, including an effort to target opposition groups that are gearing up to fight the project in central and eastern Canada.
Documents obtained by Greenpeace and released late Monday show the embattled pipeline company has hired the world's largest public relations firm, Edelman, which has a reputation for aggressive tactics in the United States and proposed a similar approach in Canada in a strategic plan completed in August.
TransCanada spokesman James Millar said Monday the company learned valuable lessons in its battle over the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S., and is eager to enlist supporters and blunt the impact of opponents as the Energy East debate heats up. But he said it opted against pursuing some of Edelman's more controversial proposals, such as quietly providing support to nominally independent pro-pipeline citizens' groups.
Greenpeace campaigner Keith Stewart said the Edelman hiring shows a growing desperation on the part of the oil and pipeline industries.
"They're bringing a much more aggressive, U.S.-style politics here," Mr. Stewart said. "They're employing pressure tactics that I would characterize as dirty tricks."
TransCanada last month filed for regulatory approval of its project that would ship 1.1-million barrels per day of western crude to eastern refineries and export terminals. It plans to convert portions of its mainline natural gas system to carry crude as far as eastern Ontario, adding new pipe to carry the oil through Quebec and New Brunswick.
Environmental groups are gearing up to fight the project in eastern Canada, notably in Quebec where the National Assembly has already passed a motion demanding the province do its own environmental review, including on climate change impacts.
In its August plan, Edelman argues the company should promote the benefits of the pipeline, respond quickly to unfavourable coverage and attacks, and put pressure on opponents by "distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources." To do that, it advises working with "supportive third parties who can in turn put the pressure on, particularly when TransCanada can't."
It also suggested "opposition research" – using public sources – to target groups such as the Council of Canadians and David Suzuki Foundation, including their funders and any litigation issues and audits they may be facing.
Mr. Millar said TransCanada won't be co-ordinating efforts of third parties to support the project, but is openly courting people to provide testimonials and other messages of support through its in-house social media sites. He said the research on opposition groups is legitimate to understand critics that are well-funded and well-organized but that it won't be used to harass them.
"There is nothing cloak and dagger or subversive about it – it essentially going and seeing what we can find online," he said. "It's just trying to get intelligence so we can better deal with misinformation."
Noting public-relations setbacks it suffered on Keystone XL, he said TransCanada is "trying to get into that conversation space better than we ever did in the last four years."
Edelman became embroiled in controversy in the United States in 2006 after its founder Richard Edelman, apologized for the firm's use of fake grassroots bloggers in a union battle with Wal-Mart. The public relations giant has also run a $52-million campaign for the American Petroleum Institute that included the use of seemingly independent, pro-industry citizens' group.
A spokesman for Edelman said the firm does not comment on work it does for clients.