Few issues have made politicians so popular as the oil and gas potential in Western Canada and the big plans for its future, including the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline through Alberta and British Columbia.
A search of the federal registry of lobbyists shows company officials and consultants for Calgary-based Enbridge (TSX:ENB) have had dozens of meetings with ministers, deputy ministers, policy directors and MPs as plans for the Northern Gateway pipeline moved from the proposal stage to public hearings. They've had communication with the chiefs of staff for the prime minister and the Opposition NDP, and met with the clerk of the Privy Council on the day the Conservative government tabled the omnibus legislation that changed the environmental laws and review process that govern the project.
"Enbridge is the perfect example of a success story from lobbying," said Roger Harris, a former Liberal member of the B.C. legislature and former vice-president of aboriginal and community partnerships for Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines.
The federal registry shows 12 different lobbyists at work for the pipeline proponent in 2011 and 2012. A search of the five years prior to that, from the beginning of 2006 to the end of 2010, produces a list of 27 different lobbyists and 10 different consultant companies, including one representing the Clean Air Renewable Energy Coalition, comprised of Enbridge, Shell, ConocoPhillips Canada and a dozen other energy companies.
Enbridge's proposal for a 1,700-kilometre pipeline that would deliver bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to a tanker port on the B.C. coast is incredibly complex, involving three government jurisdictions, 50 First Nations, an oft-maligned industry and a vocal public campaign against tanker traffic off the West Coast.
"I can't imagine a project that's more complex, yet it (Enbridge) was able to convince the federal government, the Conservatives, of its value to the point that the federal government, who puts in place the regulatory process by which projects are independently evaluated ... (Enbridge) had them shamelessly out there supporting the project before their own process was even completed," Harris said.
The Conservatives even changed the environmental regulations that affect the project, he said.
"If they don't like the outcome of that science, they can change it themselves, anyway," he said of the Conservative government.
"I suggest that that is an incredibly good success story of what lobbying can do for you: take something that is not well liked and actually get a government to literally shamelessly support it at the federal level, almost to change the regulations to make it work."
Provincially, the company has been less successful.
"They didn't see the value of lobbying the B.C. government," Harris said, because the project is federally regulated.
There are now, however, 16 people registered as working for Enbridge on the lobby registry of British Columbia. Energy companies account for one in three of the lobbyists targeting B.C. Premier Christy Clark this month, and Enbridge 15 per cent of those.
Even the health sector and its Big Pharma lobbyists are second to the energy sector when it comes to maintaining a presence in Victoria these days.
It's not surprising and shouldn't be seen in a negative light, suggested Martyn Brown, the chief of staff for former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell. Lobbying more often than not involves experts sharing their knowledge and point of view with bureaucrats and policy makers, he said.
At one point, energy was more lucrative for government than forestry or mining, Brown said.
"As a relatively young and new and very fast-growing industry, it's not surprising that there's a lot of effort put in by those companies and the industry generally to try and build literacy in government and build awareness. Also, it's an industry that clearly has a lot of dollars."
Enbridge did not return a call seeking comment.
Over the past year, the provincial lobby registry shows that energy companies account for 34 per cent of the lobbyists taking aim at the B.C. premier. The only environmental group which appears to have met with the Liberal leader is the David Suzuki Foundation.
"We're there because we know it's critical to have good government, based on sound science," said Jay Ritchlin, a program director for the foundation.
But lobbying is an expensive and time-consuming activity, and one that most environmental groups don't bother to try.
"It's expense, it's a lot of time and it is difficult to get success in that venue when you're clearly outnumbered," Ritchlin said. "We have had success with all governments at different times. ... It's gotten more difficult to meet with the higher levels, especially in a venue where you feel you're not having much influence, I must admit."
He's diplomatic when asked about environmentalists' meetings with federal officials.
"It is not as frequent as it has been in past years," Ritchlin said.
Nikki Skuce of the environmental group ForestEthics said a coalition of B.C. environmental groups have tried twice and failed to get a meeting with the premier about the Northern Gateway proposal. They also made a request to speak with Environment Minister Terry Lake and Energy and Mines Minister Rich Coleman.
"That didn't go anywhere, either," Skuce said.
The group has been accepted as an intervener in the environmental assessment, and Skuce said they will use that process to be heard.
Emma Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for the Dogwood Initiative, which is behind a petition to ban oil tankers in B.C. waters, said there's no point in trying to lobby the federal government.
"They've made their position very clear and it's just not something that we would deem worthwhile for our very limited amount of resources," Gilchrist said.
They were granted a requested meeting with provincial officials, but their main focus is on the voters who have more influence over decision makers than an organization like theirs.
"We know that Enbridge has many, many paid lobbyists," Gilchrist said. "We're never going to be able to compete in that arena. We don't have that kind of money and when you're working in the public interest, you're never going to have a lot of money. What you do have is people."
It is a David and Goliath battle, she said, but she feels they are winning.
"There are hundreds of thousands of people involved in stopping the project and these are people who will make it a ballot box issue."
Harris, the formerNorthern Gateway VP,believes Enbridge has been losing the battle for public support — and in B.C., that means losing the battle.
"The times have changed," he said. "The new reality in the marketplace today is that firms need to pay a lot more attention to what they're doing with the public ,so they're not perceived as doing something to them. It doesn't matter if you're an aboriginal community, a non-aboriginal community, in northern Alberta, in northern B.C., you now don't just carte blanche accept every piece of development that comes to your community.
"You want to know what the risks are, you want to know what the benefits are, you want to know how you fit into the picture and you want to make sure that at the end of the day whatever happens here is actually going to improve the quality of life for those people who live there."
Enbridge has failed on that front, but he believes it's not too late.
Turning public opinion around, though, will be up to Enbridge alone: the federal Conservatives are now "conspicuous by their silence," he said.
"All the Conservative federal MPs have gone underground," he said. "They realize that their own personal political fortunes may be tied to how Enbridge executes on the opportunity they provided them, and I suggest they're a little bit nervous about that now."
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