Seperate Oil & State???

On August 3rd Greenpeace Activists draped a banner from the top of the iconic Calgary Tower. The banner read “Separate Oil and State” and dominated the Calgary skyline for over half an hour. Police eventually arrested and charged nine activists. This week on Terra Informa, we investigate this statement by Greenpeace and whether it holds any validity. We interview Greenpeace campaign organizer Melina Laboucan-Massimo about the action.  For an alternative view, we interviewed Darren Barter, a spokesman for the Energy Resources Conservation Board, which is responsible for developing and enforcing oil and gas regulation in Alberta. Finally, we interview Jason Unger from Edmonton’s Environmental Law Center about the political lobbying process.

Greenpeace Banner Drop August 3, 2010 (photo:edmontonjournal)

Environmental News Headlines

Oilsands PR Campaign:

Stelmach leads oilsands blitz

Albertans support province’s management of oilsands

Greenpeace Action in Calgary:

Activists scale Calgary tower

Greenpeace activists charged with mischief

New Amazonian gas pipeline

New gas pipeline prompts fears for Amazon rainforest

BP Updates

Much of the oil remains

Reports that static kill methods successful

White House accused of spinning report

BP offers one-time compensation

Chinese oil spill

China struggles to recover from ‘worst ever’ oil spill

China oil spill regarded as more serious than first thought

Seperate Oil & State ???

Last week Greenpeace Activists draped a giant Banner from the top of the iconic Calgary Tower. The Banner contained just four words: Separate Oil and State. The banner dominated the Calgary skyline for over half an hour. Police eventually arrested and charged nine activists.  Today on Terra Informa, we investigate just what this Greenpeace statement was meant to mean, and whether it holds any validity.

This episode of Terra Informa takes you to the heart of politics in Canada’s oil country. It sometimes gets dirty. But don’t think that this is a matter only for Albertans – Canada’s reputation and environmental health is on the line, and similar issues exist across the country. Industry everywhere loves to get the ear of politicians, and sometimes ordinary citizens lose out.

In the interests of full disclosure, the listener should be aware that two of the climbers involved in the Greenpeace action are Terra Informa correspondents. However, Terra Informa has no affiliation with Greenpeace or any other environmental group, and our correspondent’s involvement did not involve this show in any way. These correspondents have not had input into today’s story.  To begin our investigation, Myles Curry spoke to Greenpeace campaign organizer Melina Laboucan-Massimo about just what message Greenpeace is trying to send.

Terra Informa was keen to get the perspective of a Government agency involved in Industry regulation. Although not specifically mentioned by Greenpeace in the protest, the Energy Resources Conservation Board is the quasi-judicial provincial regulator that is responsible for developing and enforcing oil and gas regulation. This includes approving all new developments, inspecting plants and protecting human and environmental health. We were interested to know just how the ERCB goes about consulting with both industry and environmental groups, and whether there are safeguards against unreasonable influence. David Kaczan spoke to ERCB spokesperson Darren Barter.

After hearing the perspectives of both the regulator and the protestors, we sought the opinion of an independent third party. We spoke to the Environmental Law Center, a non-profit based in Edmonton that provides environmental legal advice and policy research. Myles Curry spoke to lawyer Jason Unger about how the lobbying process works.

This week on Terra Informa we’ve tried hard to gather a range of perspectives on the issue of industry influence in policy development. As you’ve just heard, we spoke to Greenpeace, the protagonists of last week’s protest in Calgary. We spoke to the ERCB, the Alberta government energy regulator. We also spoke to an uninvolved third party, the Environmental Law Centre for their perspective on the lobbying process. Finally, we asked Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason, and the Alberta political thinktank The Parkland institute, for comments. Whilst these two latter contacts were unavailable for interview, they provided us with written statements.  Based on this investigation, Terra Informa correspondents Myles Curry and David Kaczan compiled the following opinion piece, documenting their perspective on why Government and Industry must be kept separate.

Editorial by Myles Curry and David Kaczan

The stakes of climate politics continue to rise as the world maintains its course for runaway climate change. Although national and provincial leaders have not shown much appetite for action, many ordinary citizens have been less willing to sit back and watch a climate catastrophe unfold.

On August 3rd, 9 Greenpeace activists risked their bodies and their freedom in a direct action banner drop from the 160 meter high Calgary tower. Their giant banner contained just four words: Separate Oil and State.

As we disclosed upfront on today’s show, two of those activists were Terra Informa correspondents. Terra Informa is a proudly independent new source, and has no institutional affiliation with Greenpeace or any other advocacy organisations. Those members were not involved in the production of today’s show. However, we felt that the size and significance of the action warranted today’s investigation into the validity of Greenpeace’s message.

The banner dropped by Greenpeace off the Calgary tower was bold in its message “separate oil & state”. This statement has been interpreted in a variety of ways by the media, industry, government and the general public. As Greenpeace explained to us however, they intend it as a call for fair and transparent policy making, where all members of society get equal input into the legislation that our Government’s enact.

It concerns us that the energy industry appears to have undue influence in developing the very rules that govern them. It would appear that the industry is determined to play by their own rules, rules that are probably different to those many ordinary Canadians and Albertans would want. We heard numerous examples of this, from the recent watering down of a new, stricter wetlands policy, to the rolling back of royalty rates. It makes one question just who is in charge…

Alberta NDP leader, Brian Mason, has certainly asked such a question before. In the legislature this spring he commented on the Government’s Royalty concessions to industry. Quote:

“The government made a commitment to increase royalties by $1.4 billion per year. They said that they were going to take their time to get it right. But faced with growing political pressure from industry, this government has since retreated on their commitment seven times. First, Suncor got a bitumen rollback. Then there was a deep drilling rollback, followed by Syncrude’s bitumen rollback, which was followed by a rollback for new wells. Then royalties were capped at 5 per cent, and previous rollbacks were extended. All together these rollbacks cost taxpayers $2 billion. Desperate to regain favour with the oil and gas industry, this government refuses to stand up for Albertans.”

Despite the fact that an Environomics poll at the time showed little public support for royalty rollbacks, it was the oil and gas industry that got its way.

The NDP are by no means the only voice criticising the Alberta Government for their industry friendly policies. Ricardo Accuna is the associate director of the Parkland institute, an Alberta-wide, non-partisan research centre. Earlier this year he published an article in Edmonton’s Vue magazine outlining his concerns over the recent royalty review, and we quote a section here:

“Conservatives use the word “competitiveness” as code for giving corporations what they want, and this current review is no different. Energy Minster Ron Liepert, whose department is heading up the review, has made it clear that what they’re talking about is reducing royalties, reducing corporate taxes, reducing environmental regulations, and reducing health and safety regulations. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the industry is already smiling from ear to ear about what’s in the review. Unlike with the royalty review of a few years ago, the competitiveness review did not have to deal with any messy public consultations or meetings with environmental and public interest groups. Instead, the only ones who were given a say in what went into this review was the industry itself. They got to tell the government what would make them happy, and the government got to give it to them.”

Ricardo Accuna made the point that a royalty reduction made little sense even from a purely economic standpoint. When the environmental and social impacts are considered also, such a move seems plain nonsensical. As Albertans and Canadians saw, however, the political influence of the industry outweighed such high minded considerations.

The process of rent seeking and lobbying is not uniquely Albertan, not by a long shot. Similar processes go on in legislatures all across this country, and indeed are probably much worse in other countries. However we at Terra Informa feel that the Alberta case is a prime example of the need to keep law making as free and fair as possible. Separate Oil and State indeed.

This opinion piece was written by Terra Informa Correspondent’s David Kaczan and Myles Curry.

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