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“Don’t poke the bear,” “Too much too soon,” and “Don’t fuck with these people” was how one councillor described some Regina residents who were mobilized by large oil and gas companies in what can only be described as an astroturfing campaign.
Astroturfing is a tactic used by large corporations in which they attempt to influence public opinion, with large amounts of cash, while appearing to be a grassroots cause.
Have you ever been driving down the road and noticed a vehicle driving past you (usually a recklessly driven pickup truck in my experience) with one of those “I ❤ Oil and Gas” stickers? That right there is Canadian oil and gas industry astroturfing at work. Those stickers are part of a campaign made by a lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
Scott Moe takes a side… of Oil and Gas corporate interests
According to a report by the CCPA, Regina city councillors “proposed an amendment that would add fossil fuel companies to the list of industries that cannot advertise with or sponsor City of Regina events or buildings.” This was alongside other industries such as cannabis, tobacco, and weapons manufacturers.
From the report:
On January 20, 2021, one of those newly elected councillors, Dan LeBlanc, .2 Councillor LeBlanc argued that the City’s recent commitment to become 100 percent renewable by 2050 would be perceived to be in conflict with accepting sponsorship money from those very same fossil fuel industries from which the City was trying to wean itself.
Among councillors that supported the amendment, many felt that it was hypocritical to accept sponsorship money from the fossil fuel industry while committing to ending the use of fossil fuels by 2050. “We needed to put our money where our mouth is,” one councillor we interviewed stated.
The amendment was debated and informally adopted by a 7-4 vote, but would not become official City policy until passing a full city council vote seven days later.
What followed in the intervening week was a wave of opposition to the proposed amendment that Regina Mayor Sandra Masters described as “an avalanche response from citizens and industry,” kicked off by the Premier of Saskatchewan himself.
Scott Moe issued a public statement on Twitter that kicked off this astroturfing campaign. His statement contained a not-so-thinly veiled threat toward Regina’s city council that he could withhold $33 million in provincial funds. Scott Moe’s Twitter statement:
Moe was helped along by none other than Andrew Scheer, then federal Conservative party leader.
Scheer sent a petition to the Mayor of Regina, calling the amendment a “hypocritical attack on the thousands of struggling workers in Regina and across Saskatchewan who depend on the oil and gas industry for their livelihoods.”
The corporate power behind it all
This “wave of opposition” against the amendment to ban oil and gas lobbying was not a grassroots occurrence, although to the casual observer it may have looked this way.
The lobby group Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) was able to use its wealth and resources to mobilize thousands of pro-industry citizens:
Through its Canada’s Energy Citizens group, CAPP encouraged its followers to voice their opposition to the amendment via a pre-scripted advocacy email campaign promoted on the group’s social media that would be sent directly to city council.
Canada Action, the Regina Chamber of Commerce and the Alberta government’s Canadian Energy Centre all encouraged their supporters to send pre-scripted electronic messages to city council. To give a sense of the scope of this initiative, we estimate that each city councillor potentially received upwards of 1,000 email messages generated by these campaigns on behalf of the oil and gas industry alone.
Tim Wood argues that this model of subsidized citizen participation employed by the oil industry aims to “make previously invisible citizen support more legible in public debates”
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Oil populism and resource nationalism
Oil and gas play a huge role in the economy of Saskatchewan and Canada. Saskatchewan is the second-largest oil producer in Canada, producing 159.2 million barrels of oil in 2020.
Saskatchewan governments have provided a favourable environment for this industry with low taxes, royalty rates, and other economic incentives, according to the CCPA report. On top of this, they have provided legitimacy with their public support.
“Former Premier Brad Wall and current Premier Scott Moe have taken every opportunity to boost oil and gas,” states the report. They are “often tying the prosperity of the province and even the country to the health of the industry.”
At the same time, the report identifies three themes which the oil and gas industry uses to gather support and oppose what they perceive as harmful legislation. Legislation such as banning oil and gas advertisements, in this case.
First, they portray themselves as “under siege.” Industry often uses tactics such as sponsorships and philanthropy to bolster its image in the eyes of the public. Banning advertisements is an obvious threat to this narrative.
Next, industry invokes a kind of resource nationalism. Like all forms of nationalism, there is a separation between us and them, citizens and foreigners. When it comes to resource nationalism, “the lifeblood of our economy,” must be defended from foreign, outside environmental interests. As if climate change gives a damn about borders.
Finally, the climate crisis is portrayed as a technical problem, rather than an issue of political power. In this view, technological advancement is the sole solution to climate change. Systems of power and wealth remain unquestioned.
Of course, those of us on the left vehemently disagree with this view; the system that created the climate crisis is unable to resolve its internal contradictions of infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources.
So here we have yet another example of right-wing politicians supporting powerful oil and gas corporations. These corporations are so powerful that they can shape narratives and create false populist movements.
All of this at the expense of the planet and people, with an impending – actually here already – climate crisis. These narratives must be countered, while political and economic structures that have created the climate crisis must give way to something new: something sustainable and truly democratic.
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