Shale advocates need more than communications: A lobbying allegation is dismissed, but the optics are terrible

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) yesterday was cleared by Alberta's ethics commissioner of lobbying allegations made by the Alberta Federation of Labour. The decision, which you can read here, stems from a request made by AFL secretary treasurer Nancy Furlong last August. In a letter submitted to the Office of the Ethics Commissioner, she asked that an investigation be launched under the province's Lobbyists Act looking into CAPP's role in shaping the province's shale gas communications strategy.

The allegation is rooted in an internal memo dated Aug. 2, 2011, obtained by the AFL (I've pasted it below). The document, released under the subject heading '"New West Partnership and Project Charter – "Collaboration and Information Sharing, Industry Water Use and Hydraulic Fracture Technology"', is a follow-up to a memorandum of understanding signed Dec. 16, 2010, by the provincial energy ministers for British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, in which they agreed to take "joint action on issues related to unconventional shale gas development."

The AFL took issue with the paragraph below, which it said was a "clear" indication of lobbying.

CAPP has approached the GOA requesting collaboration to enhance public communication on Alberta shale gas development. The DOE along with SRD, AENV and ERCB, are currently reviewing the CAPP request to determine the level of government involvement.

The briefing note lists Richard Dunn, Lara Conrad and Christa Seaman as CAPP participants in the information-sharing project. In its filing with the ethics commissioner, the AFL noted that Dunn is a registered lobbyist for Encana Corp. and Seaman for Shell Canada (her title with the company is Emerging Regulatory Policy Issue Adviser). Seaman is also registered as a lobbyist for Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. Conrad is not registered as a lobbyist in the province.

Neither is she, along with Dunn and Seaman, registered to lobby the province on behalf of CAPP. The AFL said this violates Alberta's Lobbyists Act. The ethics commissioner disagreed, noting that neither Dunn, Seaman nor Conrad are paid by CAPP, even if they do work for member companies. "Government working collaboratively with stakeholders does not automatically make those stakeholders "lobbyists" within the meaning of the [Lobbyists] Act," yesterday's decision says.

One could be forgiven to have missed this bit of news, what with the climate zoo in Durban, South Africa, in full swing. Which is a shame, really, because shale gas, if it is nothing else, is turning out to be a very local concern among those communities most affected by large-scale development. How the governments of B.C. and Alberta, as well as industry associations like CAPP, address public anxiety about the resource matters a great deal. The National Energy Board has noted that both the "pace and level" of shale gas production could be affected if industry participants fail to address local sensitivities.

Whether or not CAPP participants were attempting to influence policy-makers as they craft a shale gas communications strategy is, in a way, besides the point. The effort in question deals almost exclusively with superficial stuff. Big ticket items fall outside the project's mandate. It does not, for instance, include "consideration of bilateral agreements to address or harmonize water use issues in areas of cross-border shale gas plays."

Nor will it include scientific research into water supply inventories or monitoring across the western provinces – a curious provision, given that some diligent work is already under way in B.C.'s Montney formation, which, like other shale gas plays, covers a large contiguous area between northeastern B.C. and northwestern Alberta. A lot is riding on shale, from multibillion-dollar export projects to plans to introduce a greater share of gas into Canada's (and North America's) power generation mix. Advocates of the industry ought to learn from the oil sands and get out in front of the issues people care about before it's too late. That means more than enhanced communications strategies.

EnergyINK, Tues Nov 29 2011

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