With the debate still raging over Keystone XL, the company behind the pipeline is already hard at work promoting a PR strategy for its larger and entirely Canadian pipeline, Energy East. New documents made public this week show that Transcanada is working with the world’s largest independently owned PR firm, Edelman, to help garner support for the literally trans-Canada pipeline that would bring heavy crude from the western tar sands to the eastern ports for export. With clients like the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Koch-funded American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), Edelman recently made unwanted news for refusing to commit to turning away clients that support climate-denying agendas.
The leaked documents first obtained by Greenpeace as prepared by Edelman for TransCanada in May and August reveal in great detail how Edelman recommends the Canadian company target opposition by building a grassroots network of some 35,000, including a large chunk of the company’s own employees. Edelman recommends putting pressure on opponents by “distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources.” It advises working with “supportive third parties who can in turn put the pressure on, particularly when TransCanada can’t” to achieve these aims.
James Millar, a spokesman for TransCanada, told the New York Times that TransCanada did follow Edelman’s advice to create a network of allies, but that the company had rejected Edelman’s recommendation of using third parties in a campaign against opponents.
This technique of creating artificial grassroots coalitions is referred to as ‘astroturfing’ in the industry, and it is an approach that Edelman is closely linked to, especially when it comes to an ill-begotten Walmart campaign in 2006 in which bloggers were used as PR hacks without the proper transparency.
“For the climate community, I think the biggest tell here is the part where Edelman brags about their ability to do this work,” Kert Davies, founder of the Climate Investigations Center, a DC-based group researching climate disinformation efforts, told ThinkProgress.
The Edelman documents state that “it’s not just associations or advocacy groups building these programs in support of the industry:”
Companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and Halliburton (and many more) have all made key investments in building permanent advocacy assets and programs to support their lobbying, outreach, and policy efforts. In launching a program like this, TransCanada will be in good company with a strong roadmap to follow.
Not only does Edelman note their past work with fossil fuel-promoting and climate change-denying companies in the strategy proposal, but they also lay out key opponents they may target. Saying that third-party voices must be “identified, recruited, and heard to build an echo chamber of aligned voices,” Edelman cites the Council of Canadians, the David Suzuki Foundation, online activist group Avaaz, and Ecology Ottawa as groups to be potentially targeted for their weaknesses.
The $12-billion Energy East project would transport 1.1-million barrels per day — a huge capacity compared to Keystone XL’s 830,000 bpd — of heavy crude oil from Canada’s western Alberta province nearly 3,000 miles to the eastern shores of New Brunswick. It would involve a combination of new pipe to carry oil as well as converting portions of an already existing natural gas pipeline. TransCanada filed for regulatory approval of the project last month.
A February report from the Pembina Institute found Energy East would potentially generate 30 to 32 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year — the equivalent of adding more than seven million cars to the roads. The think tank predicted that the Keystone XL will produce approximately 22 million metric tons of GHGs per year.
The pipeline’s GHG footprint is not the only thing about it that extends beyond Canadian national borders. Support for large pipelines like Energy East can either add or subtract to the heated debate currently flaring up across North America regarding the value of extracting domestic fossil fuel resources and the transition to a clean energy, low-carbon economy. As evidenced by the Keystone XL debate, this type of politically-driven PR can be the most powerful of all — especially in a year when international climate negotiations are expected to come to a head and domestic power plant carbon regulations are progressing through bureaucratic channels. While fossil fuel companies pay lobbyists to infiltrate high-level political and business networks, they pay firms like Edelman to sway broader public opinion.
“We know API spends tens of millions of dollars every year on Edelman,” said Davies. “This is just one indicator that this is not small potatoes — it is essentially an industry-wide propaganda campaign to convince policymakers that there is political support for Big Oil. As backdrop to the vote on Keystone today, this shows the depth to which the oil industry goes to influence public policy.”
According to a February report by the Investigative Fund, Edelman was paid more than $50 million to manage online efforts asking officials to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, support tax deductions for the oil industry, and expand access for drilling on public lands.
Davies said that even though it’s unclear who leaked these documents, it shows that there is internal discord at Edelman over how to handle the issue of climate change.
“The consciousness of climate change has risen in the PR industry,” said Davies. “There’s more awareness of not fumbling on climate change than there was a few months ago.”
This consciousness is not present in the Edelman strategy documents for the Energy East pipeline: climate change is barely mentioned. This will likely be a losing strategy in the long term as even Edelman’s report shows Canadians are skeptical of the pipeline’s benefit and supportive of clean energy efforts. It says 48 percent of Canadians have a neutral view on oil and gas pipelines with 43 percent trusting oil as an energy source and 77 percent trusting renewable energy. The document suggests leveraging TransCanada’s renewables portfolio in helping build support for the pipeline.