OTTAWA - Heavy lobbying by the oil and gas industry has far outstripped any other interest group seeking to influence the Harper government over the last four years, according to a new study that examined the lobbyist registry.
The left-leaning Polaris Institute contends that the more than 2,700 meetings between oil and gas lobbyists and federal office holders since 2008 have helped turn Canada into a "petro state."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been promoting Canada as an emerging "energy super power" since coming to office in 2006.
And in the last 18 months, pipeline politics have become an Ottawa preoccupation as major public policy debates erupted in both Canada and the United States over the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf Coast and Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, B.C.
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Research by the Polaris Institute suggests that industry lobbying efforts have been gaining steam in lock step.
Using the federal lobbyist registry to track meetings, the study shows that since 2008 oil and gas interests dwarfed contact by other major industry groups, including the mining industry, car makers and the forestry industry.
The 734 contacts by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association almost doubled the 412 communications by two major mining associations, and almost tripled the 245 contacts by the major forest industry groups. Two groups representing auto manufacturers had 157 recorded contacts over the same four-year period.
A spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver made no apologies for meeting with industry lobbyists.
"The minister considers it appropriate to meet with a variety of groups, including those from industry, to keep himself informed on issues related to his ministerial responsibilities," Chris McCluskey said in an email.
Those lobbying efforts redoubled last year. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) had 190 contacts with government officials in 2011, up from 86 in 2010.
"This rapid increase in officially recorded lobbying by CAPP coincides with a major public relations push in print, television and online advertising designed to counter increasing opposition to the tar sands," says the Polaris report.
In addition to industry advertising, this fall the Conservative government also launched a major television ad campaign, with a budget of $9 million, to pitch Canadians on "responsible resource development."
Since achieving a majority in the May 2011 election, the Conservative government has been rewriting or repealing laws governing environmental assessments, navigable waterways and other measures it says are an impediment to major resource developments.
The Polaris study contends oil industry lobbyists are behind the policy changes.
"The amount of face time the oil industry gets in Ottawa in personal meetings and other correspondence greatly exceeds the time afforded other major industries in Canada," Daniel Cayley-Daoust, one of the report's authors, said in a release.
"No one doubts the hold the oil industry has on this current government, but it is important Canadians are aware that such a high rate of lobbying to federal ministers has strong policy implications."
The study claims environmental groups have been all but shut out by the Conservative government, judging by lobbyist registry contacts.
That's not true, said McCluskey, who noted his minister met last week with a coalition of environmental groups representing five different organizations.
He said the Polaris study is based solely on meetings that are reported to the commissioner of lobbying.
"While industry associations report their meetings to the commissioner, in many cases environmental groups do not," said the government spokesman.
"The minister will continue to assess invitations to meet environmental groups and the natural resources industry — which directly employs 800,000 Canadians and indirectly employs 800,000 more."