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Ottawa has been using Canadians' own tax dollars to peddle simple-minded flag-waving propaganda in TV ads about Canada's "Responsible Resource Development," particularly when it comes to the Alberta oil sands. Now, Greenpeace is calling them on it.
The ads – put in heavy rotation during Stanley Cup playoff broadcasts – talk about how vital developments such as the oil sands are to the Canadian economy, how they create jobs all over the country, while mentioning that the government has increased pipeline inspections and now requires double hulls on oil tanker ships. They show beautiful landscapes and happy families strolling on pristine shorelines.
Starting next month, Greenpeace is launching its own counter-campaign – consisting of TV ads and online videos featuring Canadian comedic actors satirizing the government's ad strategy, which it calls a $16-million "greenwashing" campaign. In the first TV spot, actor Peter Keleghan ( The Newsroom, Made in Canada ), portraying Canada's environment minister, says, "Being the kind of environment minister that makes big oil companies clean up their mess isn't easy. But buying ads is."
Even for supporters of oil sands development, and the oil sands producers themselves, it's a point well taken. The industry has an environmental credibility problem that may be its biggest long-term obstacle. Ottawa is largely ignoring it while stressing the industry's economic benefits – selling us on what we already know, and missing the point.
Few people would dispute that the oil sands benefit Canada economically. The Canadian Energy Research Institute has estimated that the oil sands will contribute more than $2.1-trillion to Canada's gross domestic product over the next 25 years, and will add 820,000 direct and indirect jobs, based on current expectations for oil sands development. You can quibble with the numbers, but Canadians don't need much convincing that the oil sands are a big economic engine that is likely to get bigger.
What is missing is a serious public discussion on environmental policy. Maybe that's because when it comes to the oil sands, Ottawa doesn't actually have much of an environmental policy.
Its Economic Action Plan earmarked $35.7-million for the oil industry, but the efforts are all directed toward preventing and containing oil spills. About the biggest oil-sands-specific move Ottawa can brag about is the launch last year of a three-year plan to implement a joint federal-Alberta system that will ramp up the air, water, land and biodiversity monitoring of the oil sands.
Ottawa is silent on the public image issue hanging over the oil sands – the perception that it's one of the dirtiest fuel sources in the world in terms of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. The fact is, the industry itself reduced its carbon intensity (GHGs per barrel of oil) by 26 per cent between 1990 and 2011, and the Alberta provincial government has floated plans to sharply increase the carbon tax it charges on oil sands GHG emissions, aiming to slash carbon intensity by 40 per cent.
This is the information the industry needs to impress upon a skeptical public, and the foundation for public debate on whether governments and the industry are doing enough to address the oil sands' long-term environmental viability. But Ottawa can't take credit for them, so instead it talks about jobs and shows us smiling children.
Greenpeace is right: Buying ads and writing up cynical slogans is easy. Informing and engaging public opinion to make it worth the cost? That takes actual effort.
David Parkinson is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights, and follow him on Twitter at @parkinsonglobe .
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