Citizen-Focused Pro-Energy Groups: supporting or complicating?
In Calgary this past November during the Grey Cup, citizen-focused pro-energy advocacy groups were highly visible adding a pinch of politics to a generally non-partisan event.
Premier Jason Kenney made a sideline appearance during the game wearing a “I love Canadian oil and gas” hoodie from the advocacy group Canada Action, and outside of McMahon Stadium volunteers for a group called Canada’s Energy Citizens were busy handing out branded swag to everyone who passed by.
While most people think about the debate between resource development and climate change, they envision environmental groups facing off against large oil and gas producers, but these new organizations are taking the fight to regular people through social media and branded apparel.
One of the most prominent groups, Canada Action, was started by Calgary realtor Cody Battershill in 2010 after he saw Lush Cosmetics campaigning against Canadian energy.
“I didn’t think industry was doing a very good job actually making sure the facts were discussed and that people’s opinions were based on facts,” said Battershill.
He felt that groups like Lush Cosmetics were ignoring Canada’s record of environmental leadership. He also felt that Canadian oil and gas was being unfairly targeted.
Canada Action started as a Twitter account and has grown to a large non-profit that is “volunteer built to advocate for a balanced and informed conversation about the energy sector,” says Battershill.
One of the biggest messages from Canada Action is for people to consider where Canada’s imported oil comes from, and advocate for it to be replaced by Canadian oil.
“We are still importing oil from countries with weaker environmental and human rights standards”, said Battershill.
He added that if we’re importing oil, we should be supporting energy producing countries like Canada, which have the highest environmental and human rights standards.
Another major group is Canada’s Energy Citizens, but unlike Canada Action, Canada’s Energy Citizens is directly funded by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Canada’s largest and most well-funded oil and gas lobby group.
“People make the best advocates for your industry because either they’re involved with it, or they know it, or they’re super passionate,” said James Robson Advisor, Citizen Engagement at CAPP and spokesperson for Canada’s Energy Citizens.
“We go to their email inbox, we’re on their Twitter, we’re on their Facebook, traditional media doesn’t always land with people right where they are,” said Robson.
Ian Hussey Research Manager of the Parkland Institute, thinks these organizations represent a new approach for the industry, since Canadians may be weary of messages coming directly from oil companies.
“The companies may think they can more effectively sway public opinion if they do not directly go to the public with their message,” said Hussey.
He added that it may be more effective for these companies to filter their message through a group claiming to be a grassroots movement.
To Hussey, this creates a problem of transparency. It isn’t clear where the funding for some of these groups comes from, or who is benefitting from their message.
Hussey also thinks these groups can create other problems by intentionally downplaying climate concerns or other matters that are complicated like Indigenous rights.
Over-simplifying the issues
Often complicated debates are reduced to memes and infographics by these groups and sent to hundreds of thousands of followers.
“People that present the world in a black and white simplified view, they’re probably leaving some information out,” said Hussey.
Another complication with this debate is that people on all sides are using these techniques to push their messages, which seems to be furthering the tribal nature of this discussion.
To Hussey, any group of any political persuasion that advocates for simple answers to complex problems should be viewed skeptically by the reader.
“It isn’t just people who are pro oil and gas development that use these strategies,” said Hussey.
“In terms of a conversation around the middle ground, the Greenpeaces of the world have a lot of work to do because they’re not approaching it looking for balance.”
Hussey recommends that people viewing these messages do their research to make sure they’re not taking the messages from any of these organizations at face value.
“It’s easy to manipulate numbers, it’s easy to tell half-truths, and if someone is telling a black and white or simplified story, it’s probably not the whole story,” said Hussey.