Wednesday, August 04, 2010

What Do Albertans Expect as Owners of the Oil Sands?

There is a PR and spin battle going on for the hearts and minds of the public over oil sands.  The battle is between the Government of Alberta the oil sands industry and some segments of the ENGOs (Environmental Non-government Organizations.)

The prime targets are Albertans, Canadians, businesses outside of Alberta who benefit from oil sand development and key American politicians who are fixated on a “dirty oil” message around the oil sands. The tactics being used to various degrees by all contestants are paid advertising and PR spin. 

We see the ENGO tactic of Corporate Ethics International paying for bill board advertising in a four select US cities calling for a “Rethink” of traveling to Alberta due to our so-called “dirty oil.”  There were some significant factual errors about the size of oil sands mining operation in the Corporate Ethics messages. It became a game of “he said - she said” generating more heat than light about the reality of the oil sands.

But there are other media motivated manoeuvres being employed by ENGOs.   Just yesterday Greenpeace performed another one of its publicity stunt and will get a bunch of media coverage as a result.  They hung a banner from the iconic Calgary Tower and message was “Separate Oil and State.”  Two protester wearing Premier Stelmach and Prime Minister Harper facemasks were chained to oil barrels with “Dirty Oil” written on them.  Eight of these Greenpeace protesters were arrested and that will give the story some legs in the media.

We see the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers running magazine and television ads using real people involved in oil sands technology, research and reclamation in an attempt to get an authentic human connection to the industry efforts to justify their social license to operate.

The Stelmach government is launching another quarter million dollar newspaper advertising push to “tell the world about the oil sands.”  Early indications are these ads are aimed at Albertans and Canadians and if that is the case that is hardly “telling the world.”  The recent rejection of a Letter to the Editor by Premier Stelmach to a Washington DC newspaper resulted in the purchase of a half page ad in that paper to run the letter as a way to get the message out to key US politicians.  Last time the Alberta government launched a paid advertising campaign on the oil sands it earmarked $25 million dollars glossy advertisements.  There was also some misleading in the content and context discovered in the campaign and it was quietly abandoned.

That is all by way of background for what I really want to talk.  If you want to connect with the hearts and minds of the public you should try to find out want is on their minds and in their hearts first.  Then you should talk to the public about oil sands matters that concern them.  There is a need for a conversation between government and industry about the responsible and sustainable development of the oil sands.  After all it is Albertan’s who own the oil sands.  

But are paid advertising campaigns anything close to a “conversation” with the public.  The paid advertising approach is often seen as self-serving one-way messages to the public.   There is a place for paid advertising in communications.  But in complex matters like oil sands development advertising alone is no substitute for substantial, authentic, accurate, clear and resonant conversations with the public.

So what is it about oil sands development that the Alberta public is concerned about?  What information do they want?  What do they believe ought to be the values used by decision makers as their oil sands are being developed?  How confident are they in the decision makers in government and industry about oil sands development?  At Cambridge Strategies we have designed and deployed a random sample survey with 1032 Albertans to get at what is on their minds and in their hearts about oil sands development. 

I will be doing more blog posts on this in the future but for now I want to delve a bit deeper into a survey finding that was reported in the Edmonton Journal today under the headline “Many Albertans Onside with Gov’t Handling of the Oilsands.”  It is very difficult to take a statistic and isolate it from the larger context and write a meaningful headline that also grabs attention.  So I will temper my criticism because while the headline is accurate I am not sure it really captures all the implications and essence of the findings.  That requires a bit more reflection and interpretation. 

There were some survey questions that were attitudinal and not part of the value choice questions in the conjoint study.  So they are more like opinion polling questions and relate to a moment in time only.  The value choice conjoint questions on what Albertans believe should guide and drive policy decisions on oil sands development are a more reliable source of what people want and expect over time for oil sands development.
Here is a more comprehensive look at how “onside” Albertans are with the government handling of the oil sands.  

The question asked was:  “The Alberta government is responsibly managing the oilsands.”  The response was:
  •                 Completely Agree                                           6%         
  •                 Agree                                                            25%
  •                 Slightly Agree                                                 34%
  •                 Slightly Disagree                                             17%
  •                 Disagree                                                         13%
  •                 Completely Disagree                                         5%
While there are more Albertans who agree (31%) than disagree (18%) with how their government is managing the oil sands there is a more interesting and significant factor in this answer.  Look at the mushy middle opinion.  Over half of Albertans slightly agree or slightly disagree with this statement.  These people are fluid and more undecided in their opinions.  If they move in one direction or another, that will have enormous impact on our attitudes as owners of the oilsands.  It will have consequences for politics, elections and social licenses for industry to operate in the oil sands – which is a public property.

What is it that would make Albertans in the middle group move one direction or another?  If the hearts and minds of 51% of Albertans are up for grabs what would influence them to shift one way or another about how they feel their government is doing in terms of responsible management of the oil sands.  This is not a minor issue because the survey also found that 89% of Albertans believe the oil sands are either Extremely Important (47%) or Very Important (42%) to Alberta’s prosperity.

Another serious influence on this question is how much confidence Albertans currently have in the political leaders and parties who must make public policy about what constitutes responsible and sustainable oil sands development.  That result is also in the Edmonton Journal story but it needs to be more directly related to the first question.  Again this must be looked at in terms or a possible trend. 

The question was: “Who do you trust the most to responsibly manage Alberta’s growth.”  Premier Ed Stelmach of the Progressive Conservative Party was at 23%, Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Alliance was 19%.  David Swann of the Liberals was 9% and Brian Mason of the NDP came in at 4%.  The largest segment was None of the Above at 45%.   This indicates some potential for change in Alberta politics but there is not viable political alternative in the minds of most Albertans these days.

There is great deal more opinion related results in the survey and they are published at the Edmonton Journal Notebook Blog too.  It is important to review them all and consider the implications as whole and not just individual questions.



  1. From all I have seen between the Oil sands/ Alberta Government/ big business; is that to them it doesn't matter what the people think, money talks. In the 20 years I put into helping build the oil sands expansions, and the previous 12 years working in the Alberta oil patch, I find that its same old story, money talks and anything that slows the process of income is considered to be more then just a liability, it is to be buried and forgotten about; which includes the impact on the environment, the health / well being and concerns of Albertan's, regardless of what you did to help them make the money that they so desperately crave, once you become the slightest bit of a liability, they will do all they can to make sure that you either leave the Province or live a life of Destitution.

  2. Adam J. Humphreys2:02 pm

    The Alberta energy sector makes up for 28% of our GDP and 19.56% of that is oil. Our economy halved the Alberta deficit this year largely due to oil sands royalties according to Stelmach. Attacking our essential commodities and energy sectors makes absolutely no sense. What makes sense is coming to the table with plans, and solutions to obvious problems. If the government wants to fix the negative oil sands PR issue they're going to have to publicize the repercussions for companies like the tailings pond incident with the 1604 odd ducks. People want to know that there's not only a plan of action but that there's quality, and environmental controls in place. People want to be educated about the issue and there's simply not enough data out there. Proper press releases would erase a lot of the silly press we're seeing.


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