Industry Sponsors Taint Energy Ministers' Meet

July 21, 2011
Licia Corbella
The Times Colonist

Talk about providing fuel for your enemies. Clearly, the Alberta government doesn't understand optics. How else to explain why the wealthiest province in Canada sought out industry sponsors for the Energy and Mines Ministers' Conference in Kananaskis that started on Saturday and ended Tuesday?

It was Alberta's turn to host the annual federal-provincial government conference and, as is Alberta's way, it just had to show how different and entrepreneurial it is by getting industry to pick up some of the costs.

But what it really showed is just how utterly tone-deaf Premier Ed Stelmach's government is to the cacophonous, unfair and often-effective campaigns launched by environmental groups against Alberta's primary industry, oil and gas.

For the event, the Alberta government allowed industry players to pay for gold, silver and bronze sponsorships. What they accomplished, however, was to tarnish Alberta's reputation further and make the outcome of this important meeting appear suspect.

At $30,000, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers was the only gold sponsor. So, what did the $30,000 buy them? It bought them signage at the events and around Kananaskis and paid for the Monday night barbecue - a fundraiser for the STARS air ambulance service - at the Boundary Ranch.

Sounds innocent. But environmental groups know how to spin too, and this is already being spun into a web that will trap and conceal Alberta's many positive environmental energy stories for years to come.

There were lots of silver sponsors who dished out $20,000 each: The Oil Sands Developers Group, Nexen, TransCanada PipeLines and Cenovus Energy. Bronze sponsors included Devon, the Canadian Electricity Association, Shell Canada, Enbridge, Encana Natural Gas, Canadian Petroleum Products Institute and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.

And guess what the outcome was of this gabfest? It was decided by the country's energy ministers that red tape for industry should be reduced and the feds hope that Enbridge's $5.5-billion Northern Gateway Pipeline for Alberta's bitumen gets built to B.C.'s coast in Kitimat.

Those may be wise policy decisions - I believe they are - but wouldn't it have looked better, to a world that already believes Alberta oil is dirty, to not have industry dishing out cold, hard cash where policy-makers are putting their heads together?

By seeking out corporate sponsorships, critics can now rightly point to Alberta and say, "You see, the Alberta government is in the pocket of the oil industry." Or as John Bennett of the Sierra Club pointed out, "We need to get the fox out of the henhouse."

Well, actually, John, the fox isn't just in the henhouse, the fox paid for the damn henhouse. Surely, that's how this looks.

Can you imagine the hue and cry if, at a federal-provincial health ministers' conference, large pharmaceutical companies and U.S. insurance companies were allowed to take out sponsorships?

To be fair, the sponsorships helped pay for tours of the oilsands, helicopter rides and plane rides to remote sites among other events. The cost of the conference itself was paid for entirely by the province.

Alberta's Energy Minister Ron Liepert wasn't the least bit contrite for creating this tailings pond-sized public relations disaster.

By having corporate sponsors, Liepert also left some of his colleagues in a difficult spot.

Several of the sponsors confided off the record that being approached by the government left them in "an awkward position."

"It's such a hard spot to be put into," confessed one. "It's a difficult spot for your primary regulator to come to you and ask you to sponsor their regulator conference. What the hell are you supposed to say?"

"No," is a good place to start. While these sponsorships may have saved Alberta taxpayers $180,000, it has cost this province and the federal government as well, much in terms of reputation. That $180,000 is a whopping present to the oilsands' enemies and will undoubtedly help them raise millions of dollars and provide them with the visual fodder for years to come that the strings of Alberta's provincial government are being pulled by Big Oil.

Alberta's oilsands oil is among the most ethical oil produced in the world. Instead of paying for their own conference and softly selling that message, the Stelmach government messed up again and threw some gasoline on a simmering fire.

Oil-industry critics won't have to look for smoke anymore to find the fire, they'll just have to point to the sponsorship signs on the conference podium.

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