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Reason Over Passion: CAPP president David Collyer talks about the energy industry’s PR challenges

Collyer tells us why the industry isn’t about to stop trying to tell its story

Jan 22, 2014

by Max Fawcett

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CAPP president David Collyer

More than 4,200 kilometres separate Calgary from the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick. But this past October, when a peaceful protest against a proposed fracking operation, which the First Nation worries could pollute a fresh-water reservoir, escalated into full-on conflict, those in the head offices of the energy companies in Calgary probably felt a whole lot closer. Television and especially social media buzzed with images and stories of pipe bombs, police dogs snarling at unarmed elders, and burned-out RCMP cruisers. When it comes to messaging, it was a difficult moment for the energy industry.

As the president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, David Collyer’s job – well, one of them anyways – is to ensure that the fracking conversation avoids being dragged into the muck that’s hobbled the oil sands and the pipelines proposed to carry their product to markets. Alberta Venture’s Max Fawcett met Collyer and discussed the strategies for telling the industry’s story.

AV: The events in New Brunswick, and the reaction on social media, suggests that an anti-fracking narrative is taking hold in some circles. Does that worry you?
DC: We have to be concerned about anything that is directly intended to turn the public against the oil and gas sector. We think we have a very good story to tell, and we’ll continue to tell it. We need to continue to make sure that the facts are on the table, and that people understand the technical dimension of this, which is not always easy to convey. There’s a long track-record of successfully fracking in Western Canada, and we believe it can be done safely, but we need to continue to reinforce that message, and particularly in areas of the country that haven’t had much oil and gas activity over the years.

AV: How do you do that? When I was in Vancouver there was a barrage of television ads promoting the benefits of the Northern Gateway project. The response was, at best, mixed. Are advertising campaigns effective?
DC: We’ve done a lot of advertising on oil sands, and I think the public opinion polling that we do suggest that they are, overall, effective, in terms of moving the middle. There will always be a segment of the population that’s opposed to what we do, and quite frankly we’re not spending a whole lot of time trying to convince them otherwise. But there is a large percentage of the population that’s either supportive or very open to information, and we have an obligation to engage with them.

AV: How else can you get your message out?
DC: We also have to be active on the ground. That’s a combination of what industry as a whole can do and what individual proponents can do. It’s a multi-faceted engagement and communications approach. It’s advertising, it’s social media, it’s community meetings, it’s the one-on-one discussions on the ground, and all of that has to be underpinned by performance. If we don’t perform as an industry, the communications won’t be nearly as credible. It’s a long road, and we shouldn’t expect the issue to go away. Those who oppose oil and gas activity are very passionate in their beliefs, and they’re well-organized and well-funded. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and we have to stick with it.

AV: Is there a conflict between that notion that it’s a marathon rather than a sprint and the fact that there appears to be a window of opportunity in terms of exporting oil and gas to Asia that may eventually – and perhaps quickly – close?
DC: I think there is a window of opportunity, but it’s different for oil than it is for gas. The natural gas export opportunities are more broadly supported by the public and first nations in BC than oil is. The LNG market is also very competitive market, and we’re not in it today. We’re competing with countries like Australia, emerging supplies in east Africa and other jurisdictions, and I believe there is a market window here in part because we have to break into a market that’s growing and in part because we expect there to be some changes in the pricing related to LNG over time. That’s why it’s better to be in the market sooner rather than later. I think that window is going to close at some point, and there’s clearly a sense of urgency for Canadian suppliers to be a part of that market – and you’re seeing a lot of impetus to do that in BC.

I would not represent that there isn’t a window of opportunity or a sense of urgency for oil as well, and we need to get our act together in Canada so that we can move these projects forward and convince the market that we’re a credible supplier.

AV: Has the federal government been helpful or harmful in establishing that credibility?
DC: I think they’ve been helpful in terms of being active in the marketplace, representing Canada as a supplier. They’ve made changes to the federal regulatory system to provide more timely decisions – that doesn’t mean approvals, but decisions – on projects. There’s work left to be done – there’s no question that the regulations related to marine transportation need review, and we expect some changes in that regard.

The other file that the federal government has a role to play, and an important role to play, is the aboriginal file. It’s important in BC, and it will be an important dimension in getting any of these projects off the ground.

AV: Do you worry that the concerns raised by aboriginal activists in New Brunswick could – forgive me – leak into the conversation over LNG in BC?
DC: Yeah, I think there’s always the potential for that. Again, I think it gets to the broader issue of making sure we do the best we can to get the information out into the public domain that people should have in order to make their own decision about proceeding with shale gas activity. Again, there’s a long track record in Alberta and BC of doing this very successfully, and I think areas of the country where they have had more oil and gas activity people are more comfortable that the right balance can be struck and this can be done safely. It’s more of an issue in places like New Brunswick, where there isn’t that familiarity with oil and gas activity.

AV: Jim Prentice made waves late last year when he suggested publicly that the foreign takeover rules implemented by the federal government – one that he used to be a part of – are discouraging state owned enterprises from investing in Canada. What are you hearing on that issue?
DC: I wouldn’t attribute the decline in foreign investment to the change in SOE rules to the degree that Jim Prentice did in his recent comments. I think there are a number of factors influencing investment levels in the near-term, not the least of which is the margin pressure on the industry at the moment and the uncertainty about the timing of new pipeline projects. The SOE rules, I think, are clearer than they were – some would argue they’re not clear enough yet, but I think they’re quite well understood by the Chinese in particular.

AV: Is the Northern Gateway project – and indeed, any oil pipeline that seeks to connect the oil sands to the coast of BC – a dead letter, or can industry make progress there?
DC: I think we can make progress, and I think we continue to make progress. I don’t mean to say that it’s going to be easy. There will continue to be opposition in BC to what we’re trying to do, and in some respects in other parts of the country. But when I step back and look at the broader public’s view and what’s in the public interest for Canadians, and when I look at the steps being taken both by the upstream and pipeline proponents, and I look at the potential for economic benefit I think at the end of the day reason will prevail, and we will get at least some of these projects approved.”

AV: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since you took over the position of CAPP president in 2008?
DC: There’s no question that the debate – or the conflict, or the dialogue, depending on which day of the week it is and how vocal people are – is evolving. It’s clearly migrated down the value chain, in part because there are concerns locally and regionally with respect to infrastructure projects, in part because frankly there’s a regulatory process and an approval process that draws attention to those projects, and provides a venue for the debate. That requires that we, as an industry, work more effectively along the value chain, through coalitions and relationships that we have with others. There’s no question that it’s created more complexity – we have more geographic reach, and a requirement to build more relationships and coalitions. That’s the reality of the world we live in, and we, as industry, have to be proactive and address the concerns where they exist.

AV: Have communications become a more important function in your industry since you became the president of CAPP?
DC: Absolutely – no question about that. For a long time, we as an industry believed – and frankly, were very successful – in engaging with those who lived near our operations and whose land we were impacting by drilling wells or building pipelines. There’s no question that the broader dialogue around energy has evolved considerably – it’s much, much different than it was even five years ago. Energy is in the public eye for various reasons. Part of that is due to changes in the media – social media has definitely changed the way we communicate, and the way the public engages and communicates around these issues.

I would say, though, that the responsibility of industry to perform still underpins all this. People talk a lot about communications, and it’s critically important, but if that communication isn’t underpinned by strong industry performance then we don’t have a credible platform from which to communicate. That means improving environmental and social performance, it means demonstrating to people where and how the economic benefits of the industry link to them, it means have a world-class regulatory system and it means organizations like ours being constructive and solutions-oriented in the way we engage with policy makers and the public.

AV: Does social media give the energy sector’s critics a louder voice than they deserve? And if so, what can you do about it?
DC: Social media gives the critics a platform and a level of connectivity that didn’t exist in the past. It allows information, often misinformation or misrepresentations of information, to be more broadly communicated more quickly. Equally, though, it gives us a platform to ensure that the contrary view, if you will, is out there. What we often find is that if industry, or other parties who support oil and gas activity, intervene in those conversations, then we can take them to a different place and leave them with a more balanced perspective. But if we leave them alone, they have a tendency to run away a little bit.

AV: Does that mean you need to take the fight to them?
DC: I think the mandate going forward – certainly what I talk about all the time – is making sure we’re getting our message out, that we’re on the offense and we’re proactive in representing a positive view of the industry. I think most people are smart enough to see through some of the criticism and the misrepresentation.

AV: Are you optimistic about the industry’s future?
DC: I’m always optimistic, and I think we should remain optimistic. We’ve got a fabulous opportunity in front of us in Canada, and while we have bumps in the road and challenges, no question, there are a lot of countries and jurisdictions that would love to have the problems that we have. We’ve got challenges in the short term as far as market access and margin pressure, but I think we’ll get through those. I think reason will prevail in the end.

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One Response to Reason Over Passion: CAPP president David Collyer talks about the energy industry’s PR challenges

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