David Staples: Oil industry takes fierce aim at foreign-funded anti-oil activists

David Staples: Oil industry takes fierce aim at foreign-funded anti-oil activists

Tim McMillan, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers president and CEO, speaks during a news conference on Canada falling behind in global competition for oil and natural gas investment on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018.

I did not see anyone actually breathe fire but there was nonetheless plenty of red-hot rhetoric when Edmonton’s business community got together this week to plot about the rebirth of Alberta’s oil and gas sector.

Alberta’s oilpatch hasn’t fumed like this since the 1980s. It’s now waking up to the fact that paid anti-pipeline activists, many of them foreign-funded, got the best of the industry.

“We started to believe that our industry was unstoppable, that success was a given …,” said keynote speaker Tim McMillan, who founded an oilfield services company, was energy minister in Saskatchewan, and is now president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, to a packed room at an Edmonton Chamber of Commerce function on Wednesday.

“(We believed) that inefficiencies were not to be worried about, that foreign activists were just annoyances, that our momentum, our inertia, was too great to ever truly be stopped. Sadly, we now know that is just not true.”

Oil executives and workers are going to war in a way they haven’t done in decades. Truckers and rig workers are driving in caravans to protest. Oil company lawyers are preparing lengthy legal briefs to counter the latest anti-oilsands policies about to enacted by government.

The main target of their ire is non-grassroots, professional anti-pipeline activists who have received tens of millions in funds from U.S. foundations that openly brag about land-locking the Alberta oilsands in the last decade, this during the same time period that U.S. oil production doubled.

“I speak about it often because I think Canadians should be irate about it,” McMillan said of the anti-pipeline campaign. “The more light and visibility we can put on it, the higher the chance we can disinfect it.”

The oil and gas sector now realizes it’s both complacent and naive to count on getting a fair shake from Protest Incorporated.

After all, what’s in it for paid activists to do anything but demonize the Alberta oil and gas industry? It’s their bread-and-butter to preach doom and despair.

“We have been the victims of a very well-orchestrated, well-planned foreign-funded attack on Canadian infrastructure, on pipelines, on LNG facilities,” McMillan said. “Thank you Jane Fonda, thank you Tzeporah Berman. You’ve cost us tens of thousands of jobs. We’ve been selling our resources at a steep discount with devastating effects.”

The oil and gas sector’s own campaign is to advocate for its pro-pipeline agenda in both the Alberta provincial elections and at the hearings for Bill C-69, the federal government’s new industrial assessment policy, and for Bill C-48, the proposed northwest coast tanker ban on oilsands crude.

The oil and gas sector makes up one-third of the provincial economy, but capital investment has dropped to $40 billion in 2018 from $80 billion in 2014. McMillan wants to see a return of investment to those 2014 levels.

McMillan said higher corporate taxes and an overly complex regulatory scheme here have pushed away investment, even as it increased by 10 per cent in the U.S. last year. “Did you know it takes four times longer to get an oil well licensed in Alberta than it does in Texas or in Oklahoma?”

Alberta now has cleaner oil to sell, McMillan said, pointing out the industry has cut per barrel carbon emissions by 20 per cent in the last decade.

As for C-69, the best legal advice I’ve heard is that the bill gives pipeline opponents exactly what they want, an open-ended hearing process that will become a show trial for societal grievances, not a scientific assessment of pipeline safety (which is the actual main point of such hearings).

The bill also creates numerous new legal triggers, none of them related to pipeline safety, each of them empowering activist organizations to tie up billion-dollar projects in the courts.

The Trudeau Liberals insist this bill will bring more certainty for investors, but there’s a massive disconnect here. Industry leaders say it will make things worse for approvals.

McMillan said he’s worked hard to get the Liberals to make necessary changes to Bill C-69. He’s been assured throughout the process that changes will happen, yet the bill has only gotten more problematic. “I’m struggling with the government’s line that, ‘This will be fine.’ Because it won’t be fine.”

No, it won’t be fine. But at last oil and gas sector leaders and workers are starting to admit past mistakes and to throw hard punches in this heated political dispute. They’re also no longer getting sucker punched by U.S. interests, which will go a long way.