In hindsight, Stephen Harper’s new fight against the world’s oil sands detractors was a long time coming. Last November in Vancouver, the Prime Minister gave a local television interview in which he warned that “significant American interests” would be “trying to line up against the Northern Gateway project,” Enbridge’s proposed $3.5-billion double pipeline from near Edmonton to a new port at Kitimat, B.C.
“They’ll funnel money through environmental groups and others in order to try to slow it down,” Harper told his hosts. “But, as I say, we’ll make sure that the best interests of Canada are protected.”
In early November, U.S. President Barack Obama announced he was putting off final approval of TransCanada’s $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline until after this November’s presidential election. Harper has long viewed Obama as an unsteady ally. Now he’d had enough. “I’m sorry, the damage has been done,” he told CTV before Christmas. “And we’re going to make sure we diversify our energy exports.”
Harper picked the second week of January to kick his game into gear. The government released a letter signed by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, warning of “environmental and other radical groups” seeking to “hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda”—by lining up to speak against the project at the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel environmental hearings.
Two days after Oliver’s letter, Harper welcomed Chinese ambassador Zhang Junsai to his office to announce he’ll visit China in February. The Harper government is mobilized to make sure Gateway goes through, and it is using familiar tactics honed in three federal elections to rally public opinion against anyone who would stand in the way.
It is also being mightily helped by a loose constellation of staunchly conservative activists, operatives and journalists inside the government and outside it. Their guiding text is a book that has turned into a movement, the Calgary-born lawyer, Sun News TV host and all-around gadfly Ezra Levant’s Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands.
Levant’s thesis is simple enough: compared to most of the world’s oil sources, northern Alberta is a veritable bastion of stability, political enlightenment and environmental responsibility. It didn’t influence the Harper Conservatives in new directions so much as it put their long-standing convictions into words. Four months after the book was published in September 2010, Harper’s new environment minister, Peter Kent, began using the phrase “ethical oil” to describe Canada’s petroleum exports.
But Ethical Oil might have been nothing more than a book if Levant hadn’t won the National Business Book Award in May. The award was bestowed by a prize jury that included CBC News chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, and it came with a $20,000 prize.
That money caught the eye of Alykhan Velshi, 27, a Toronto-born lawyer who was coming off four years as a spokesman for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and two months as a strategist in the Conservatives’ election war room. Velshi figured he’d had enough of government, though not of politics. He told Levant that, in return for the $20,000 prize money, he would launch an Ethical Oil blog that would form the basis for a political movement.
Like a lot of blogs, Velshi’s had a button viewers could click if they wanted to donate some money. Ethical Oil’s donate button got a lot of clicks. By July Ethical Oil had released a suite of highly provocative ads, contrasting life in “Conflict Oil” countries—say, a picture of women being stoned to death—with life in Canada, illustrated by a photo of Fort McMurray’s elected Mayor Melissa Blake.
And by November, at almost precisely the moment Obama announced the Keystone delay, Velshi announced he was on his way back into government—in the Prime Minister’s Office, where he serves as director of planning, a role that combines long-term planning on policy and political strategy.
His replacement as Ethical Oil’s spokesman is Kathryn Marshall, a University of Calgary law student and former junior Conservative political staffer. On Jan. 2 she launched a new website, Ourdecision.ca, which argues that “countless . . . foreigners from Europe to South America and a long list of foreign-funded lobbyists” are “hiring front groups to swamp the hearings to block the Northern Gateway pipeline project.” This one’s got a donate button too.
Both the Ethical Oil website and Ourdecision.ca were built and maintained by Go NewClear Productions, a boutique ad firm run by Marshall’s husband, Hamish Marshall. Hamish Marshall used to work in Harper’s PMO. Go Newclear runs websites for several Conservative MPs. Its own website boasts it is “experienced in the development of both conventional and unconventional online weaponry” to “blow away your competition.” Its ads have aired “in both Canada and Australia” and its client list includes “expertise on social networking in Russia and Iran.”
Now the company is helping family and friends spread the message that foreigners must not interfere in Canadian resource decisions. Whose money is paying for the campaign? Ethical Oil’s website proclaims that, “Unlike most anti-oil sands organizations,” it “does not accept any money from foreign donors like Greenpeace International, the U.S. Tides Foundation or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
The organization does accept money “from individuals and companies, including those working to produce ethical oil”—phrasing that appears to acknowledge Canadian oil firms are donors. The site says the “median size” of its donations is $38, an artful wording that reveals nothing about the size of its largest donations.
Ethical Oil, and Harper’s entire Gateway campaign, depend on delicate distinctions between what’s local and foreign. Many firms active in the oil sands have their headquarters in Texas, France, the United Kingdom and China. Canadian firms and Harper’s own government lobbied Washington for months on the Keystone pipeline.
Velshi declined a request for an interview. Conservatives familiar with Ethical Oil say his role in the PMO is broad and does not have anything directly to do with selling Canadian bitumen abroad. “I’m 100 per cent sure that there’s no coordination between Alykhan and Joe Oliver’s office,” one Conservative said. The connection is loose and cultural, not conspiratorial: “This government has narratives, and this”—the virtue of the oil sands, suspicion at the motives of its opponents—“is one of them.”
Indeed, one hardly needs to be plugged into the mains of Conservative power to share the government’s perspective. Calgary pollster Marc Henry found last autumn that 81 per cent of the province’s residents are “proud of Alberta’s energy resources” and that 73 per cent agree with the statement, “If it weren’t for Alberta’s energy sector, I wouldn’t enjoy the quality of life I do today.”
In pushing an Ethical Oil narrative for Canada’s oil sands exports, Harper is accomplishing two political goals in addition to his policy aims. First, he’s reassuring Albertans, especially in the oil patch, that he’s one of them. Second, he’s betting Canadians outside Alberta will side, in greater number, with the petroleum industry’s proponents over its foes. “This is us being pro-Canada, pro-middle class,” the Conservative staffer said. “Anybody who looks at this says, ‘Should we export more stuff? Should we diversify our markets?’ Of course we should.”