Alberta energy ‘war room’ launches Times Square ad, expert questions campaign

Alberta’s Canadian Energy Centre has launched an ad campaign in Times Square to promote the country’s oil and gas industry in the United States. 

The initiative from the province’s so-called energy “war room” is spending $240,000 to push Canada’s sector as the solution to “cleaner energy and lower gas prices,” according to its website. 

The centre operates as a private corporation, created by the United Conservative Party government, to promote Alberta energy. It has been beleaguered with branding and messaging problems since its launch.

“We’re right here next door. And we’re cleaner. We’re closer and we’re committed to net zero. So turn your eyes our way,” CEO Tom Olsen told CBC News. 

“We think we should meet the demand for energy that the United States needs over and above what they produce domestically. And frankly, for the rest of the world.”

The video billboards in New York City feature maple leaves pouring from a gas pump nozzle with the caption “Choose Friendly Oil.” About 96 per cent of Canada’s oil and gas exports go to the U.S., according to Natural Resources Canada.

And the centre is asking Americans to write to the Joe Biden administration urging the U.S. government to lean on cleaner Canadian energy instead of requesting more production from Russia and OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia — as surging U.S. gas prices recently reached a seven-year high. 

But one expert says it’s disingenuous to call the Canadian industry clean. 

“You can read their statement of saying oilsands have gotten cleaner, but the oilsands barrels themselves relative to a global average are still pretty emissions intensive. So there’s not really a good way to reconcile what they’re saying at Times Square with what we know from the data,” said Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist at the University of Alberta. 

“All of our data says that the average Canadian barrel is getting more emissions intensive.”

Canada’s emissions have increased by more than 21 per cent between 1990 and 2019, largely driven by oil and gas extraction, according to the federal government. While GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions per barrel from the oilsands have fallen 36 per cent since 2000, Alberta’s emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent increased by 61 per cent between 1990 and 2019.

“I would pit Canada’s industry against Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia any day of the week,” Olsen said.

Leach says that assertion ignores global comparisons. 

“It’s pretty hard to argue that the average Canadian barrel has gotten cleaner over time. Even though some of the oilsands barrels, in general, have gotten a little bit better, just by the fact that they’re becoming more and more of our overall picture, our overall picture is getting worse.”

A money-maker and a net zero pledge

The country’s five biggest oilsands producers have vowed to combine forces, money and technology to reduce emissions in one of the most carbon-intensive jurisdictions in the world. The alliance includes Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Imperial Oil, MEG Energy and Suncor Energy, which together operate 90 per cent of the country’s oilsands production.

Meanwhile, Canada’s second largest pension plan, Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec, has announced it will divest from oil and gas, shedding $3.9 billion in production assets by the end of 2022. 

Energy accounted for more than 10 per cent of Canada’s nominal GDP in 2019, according to Natural Resources Canada. Oil, natural gas and petroleum products remain Canada’s top export by value, at more than $112.6 billion in 2019, per industry statistics. 

Canada has committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. The recently re-elected Liberal Party ran on a pledge to kill federal subsidies for the oil and gas sector by 2023. 

The ad campaign is running two billboards in Times Square for a month, another along New York’s Grand Central Parkway for two weeks and three outside the sports arena in Washington, D.C., for two weeks. The energy centre will measure success through website hits, media stories and the number of advocacy letters sent, Olsen said, but he did not provide a specific target number. 

“The audience for these ads isn’t in Times Square. The audience for these ads is in Edmonton and Calgary,” Leach said. 

The war room operates with a $12-million budget, reduced from $30 million during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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