by Leslie Anthony
It’s spring, and the best part of that season in Canada—in conjunction with all the new outdoor recreation it brings us—is a nightly dose of hockey in the form of the NHL’s annual Stanley Cup Playoffs. Viewership is very high for the protracted, high-energy sporting series that lasts well into June, so television ads naturally cost fat stacks. Across the country we all watch, but we don’t all see the same ads. Here in B.C., our hockey viewing has been soiled by a steady diet of nauseating ads: after losing a non-binding plebiscite in Kitimat over its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and with opposition to the project steadily growing, oil company Enbridge—in no small part aided by the Harper government and probably your tax dollars—has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising to make this pipeline seem like a low-impact walk in the park, as well as to divorce their tarnished company name from it.
To say that those who value the raw beauty, ecosystems, fisheries, tourism and unparalleled outdoor recreation of the B.C. coast are sad, disappointed or upset by the renewed vigour of this misguided campaign—via endless television commercials and every Internet portal you can imagine (although I’m sure most of these are only visible to targeted B.C. residents)—would be putting it mildly. Enraged is more the sentiment, and Enbridge deserves every molecule of anger directed at it.
Whereas earlier ads promulgated the message that Canadians need pipelines and Alberta tarsands oil (“it’s more than a pipeline, it’s a path to the future”), that message understandably rang hollow in the face of repeated spills, climate change realities and a sheer absurdity that could be grasped by even a Grade 5 student. The latest round of ads, however, are more insidious, spun with classic heartstring-tugging, image-makeover PR: warm hues, green and blue to the horizons, children playing in a mossy forest, assurances that the pipeline will use previously disrupted land along 70% of its route (without mentioning that some of it has already reverted to its natural state of forest) and that project peeps (who are suddenly environmentalists doncha know) are working hard to meet the 209 conditions set out by the National Energy Board’s lackey Joint Review Panel in their indefensible recommendation to approve the pipeline (of 1,200 or so people who spoke at JRP hearings over the course of 18 months, only two spoke in favour of the project).
Naturally the ads don’t mention the de facto disruption to migration and mating and foraging in wildlife ranging from caribou to humpback whales; no mention of the impact and effect on recreational tourism like hiking, kayaking and fishing; no mention of the inevitable spills; no nod to the concerns of First Nations over potential impacts to their sustainable food harvests in rivers, lakes and ocean; no talk of the ecologically disruptive effects of tanker traffic or a potential spill on the coast (despite what it says, Enbridge only has responsibility for the pipeline from its origin in Bruderheim, Alberta, to the would-be terminus of Kitimat, B.C., and under current legislation can pretty much wash its hands of what happens after that). And finally, almost criminally (especially given that it’s the primary global ecological issue of our times the key concern in the Keystone XL debate), zero mention of climate change issues. Maddeningly but not surprisingly, the entire ad campaign, like so much that energy companies do, is designed to deceive; to make people think “Hey, these guys sound pretty responsible, and that pipeline doesn’t sound so bad—especially if a few jobs come with it and we can sell some oil to China.”
The reality, however, is that the company doesn’t care about you or I or Canada or native rights or salmon or anything else—it’s a self-feeding, self-serving behemoth responsible only to its own bottom-line concerns and shareholders. Reality is that every aspect of building and operating a tarsands pipeline filled with bitumen and toxic condensate through unstable mountains and over 700 watercourses including B.C.’s major salmon watersheds is fraught with danger and potetially bad for everything—most especially the future. And reality is that there won’t be enough permanent jobs to run a McDonalds franchise. In other words, as opponents hold, no amount of risk justifies this project.
The real slight-of-hand, however, is that nowhere in the ad does the name “Enbridge”—the Corporate Hall of Shame oil company that has been happily breaking NEB rules for 25 years and soaking up the fines while leaving devastating oil spills in communities around North America to attest to its irresponsibility—appear. Nor does the name or any link appear in the titling or menu on gatewayfacts.ca—a sham of a site filled with softball questions likely posed and answered by OilCon trolls that similarly and conveniently overlooks any real facts related to the above litany. Somehow, stealthily, even gently, Northern Gateway—with its willowy leaf logo and newfound disconnection from one of the most demonstrably malfeasant oil companies of all time—is being green washed before our eyes by the equally conscienceless PR firm Hill + Knowlton (a well-known influence-peddler and subsidiary of the largest PR outfit in the world, which did work around the Exxon Valdez spill and has run campaigns for tobacco companies, not a few political despots, and sold the Iraq war to the American people with its notorious “dead babies in incubators” gambit).
With a much-documented majority of B.C.’s population opposing the pipeline and no change in sight, one can rightly ask what’s the point? Clearly the company is trying to soften the landing and turn down the gas (ha ha) for Harper’s inevitable approval of the project in only a few weeks time, hoping the inevitable civil disobedience and war on the ground doesn’t further damage their already perfidious reputation.
But it’s not working. Anyone can understand that you can’t buy social license. When a company or government (or both) spends the equivalent of a small country’s GDP on a campaign to convince people to accept something odious, there’s something truly rotten in Denmark (and Bruderheim, and Kitimat) and the people should reject it categorically and even more fiercely than before.