The Alberta government met privately with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to discuss a joint public relations campaign designed to counter "misinformation" about the controversial shale-gas fracking industry in the province.
Internal government briefing notes, emails and minutes of meetings obtained by CBC show several meetings were held last summer, in response to an invitation from CAPP to produce a collaborative communications campaign.
Officials from the Energy Resources Conservation Board, the arm's length regulator of the oil and gas industry in Alberta, also attended the meetings.
Minutes from a June 9, 2011 meeting reveal the government approved of this collaborative plan.
"(Government of Alberta) agrees communication is a priority including a joint industry/GOA committee to develop similar language and terminology for discussion of shale gas issues and operations.
"The objective is to improve public understanding of shale gas operations and improve public knowledge and confidence. Preparation of a common background information document may be of value (when) targeted at a public audience."
Secret communications plan?
But although they were keen to collaborate, it appears they didn't want the public to know.
"Although a common technical understanding and common background communication documents are of value, it is important for the (government of Alberta) and industry to prepare separate communication initiatives," the minutes state.
"They're talking about producing a communications plan that is in the industry's interest," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, which obtained the documents through Freedom of Information.
"The two parties are going to sit down and make a joint communications plan to sell this shale-gas industry and then go to the public and make it look like they didn't cooperate."
McGowan and other critics say these private meetings show both the Alberta government and the ERCB are too close to the oil and gas industry.
"What this suggests to me, at least in this instance, is that the government is functioning as the public relations arm for the energy industry," McGowan said.
Collaborative communications plan have 'backfired'
Chris-Severson Baker of the independent Pembina Institute said the government has a checkered history of collaborating with the oil industry on communications.
"It has really backfired," he said. "It raises more concerns about the issue and it doesn't really result in a meaningful dialogue about how to resolve the issues."
Meeting minutes show representatives from the departments of Environment, Energy and Sustainable Resource Development, and the ERCB, attended the meetings with CAPP officials.
The documents show the government and CAPP were anxious to counter what they commonly viewed as "misinformation."
"Environmental and Non-Governmental Organizations are supporting a ill-informed campaign on hydraulic fracturing and water related issues in British Columbia and in other jurisdictions and this is expected to grow as shale-gas development expands into Alberta and Saskatchewan," the document states.
Industry worried about 'misinformation'
They worried the industry may be "constrained" by "misinformation in the public media and communities facing shale gas development pressure."
Because of this concern, the document suggests they needed "coordinated communications strategies for water use for shale gas development issues."
In one email, senior Alberta Energy official Marina Holmes suggests the ERCB not only be part of the discussions, but should take the lead in the joint-communication initiative.
Minutes from a July 19, 2011 meeting show two ERCB officials, Cal Hill and Bob Willard, attended along with CAPP and government officials.
Darin Barter, an ERCB spokesman, said the ERCB officials were only at the meetings to provide technical advice.
Government story changes
Bart Johnson, spokesman for former energy minister Ron Liepert, told CBC the documents were "meaningless."
The "mid-level" officials at the meetings had no authority to meet with CAPP, he said, and there were no representatives present from the Public Affairs Bureau, which would have the authority.
"Maybe the people around that (meeting) table thought it was appropriate, I don't know, but in the end, government thought it inappropriate to be working with CAPP," Johnson said. "I can tell you that when communications (the Public Affairs Bureau) was made aware of this, it ended."
But in a later on-camera interview, Johnson said there was nothing wrong with the meetings.
He said the government routinely meets with a broad spectrum of stakeholders on all sorts of issues and these meetings were no different.
He said it was CAPP, not the government, which decided to withdraw from the collaborative communications initiative.
Chris Severson-Baker of the Pembina Institute said Premier Alison Redford needs to honour her Conservative leadership campaign promise of more open and transparent government.
"If they want to really address this issue, the way to go about it is to open up a meaningful dialogue about the issues related to fracking," he said.
"Be inclusive and invite all stakeholders to put their issues on the table and actually plug the regulatory gaps that exist and do it in a very transparent manner.
"That is the approach Premier Redford is now promoting within her government, so I am hopeful that is the approach they will take."
CBC News, Tues Nov 29 2011
Byline: Charles Rusnell