Back to top

The ear of government and the mouths of the oil industry

December 15, 2011

Last April (2011) we wrote about media coverage from Quebec’s La Presse about the fact that senior Canadian government officials had about 30 times more meetings with the oil and gas industry than they did with environmental organizations. Last Friday (December 12th) the French CBC did its own story – looking at meetings between the oil and gas sector and Environment Minister Peter Kent since his appointment to that role in January 2011.  Here’s our effort at a partial translation:

An analysis of the federal Registry of Lobbyists shows that Peter Kent met with representatives of oil and gas companies 23 times. The records include meetings with Imperial Oil, TransCanada, Suncor, Husky Energy and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. …

However, environmental groups have had much less opportunity to meet with Minister Kent. The register of lobbyists inventories only nine interviews with these groups.

Some of the most important environmental groups have never even met the Minister. This is the case of Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation and Climate Action Network Canada. The spokesperson of the [Climate Action Network, a] national coalition of 75 organizations expressed disappointment in the record of Mr. Kent’s meetings. "It's disappointing. It shows that the Minister's priorities are really more on oil and the economic side than on the side of environmental protection," said Dale Marshall.

It might appear that compared to the figures reported by La Presse at the end of March, the meeting ratio of 23:9 may actually amount to an improvement.  However, only 1 of the meetings that Peter Kent had with environmental organizations (with the Pembina Institute) seems to have been directly related to energy issues; the others were presumably on other environmental issues.  (By contrast, there are records of four energy related meetings between environmental organizations and each of the NDP and Liberal Environment Critics, since they were appointed to their respective roles in June 2011).

It may well be that oil and gas companies have asked for meetings more often than environmental organizations (due perhaps to having considerably more money for lobbyists, and perhaps due to a belief – correct or not – that Minister Kent is more receptive to hearing from industry). 

Regardless, it looks as if Canada’s Minister of the Environment is still spending considerably more time listening to oil and gas companies than environmental organizations.  And that means that he’s mostly hearing just one side of the story. 

A few points to make:

First, this story comes a bit more than a month after the Canadian government cut its 34-year funding arrangement with the Canadian Environmental Network.  This decision was made with no notice – indeed, after the CEN was assured that the funding was secured – forcing it to lay off its staff.  The CEN was a conduit between 640 environmental organizations across Canada and the federal government.  It was precisely because large business interests have the capacity to hire lobbyists and to leverage meetings with Ministers that the CEN was created.  Until this year the government recognized the value of promoting more equal access through its funding of the CEN. 

Second, in addition to the sample size of two stories (Quebec’s La Presse and French CBC) is pretty darn small, what are we to make of the fact that the investigative journalism on this story has been entirely in French?  Even CBC has not, as yet, bothered to translate and repost the story in English.  Why is this a worthwhile story in French, but not to the English-language media?  Do Francophones for some reason find it more intuitively obvious than Anglophones that unequal access to government often leads to skewed government decisions?  Or are French-language journalists simply more likely to go to the trouble of looking things up in the (on-line) Registry

What can English-speaking Canadians do to get our media to report on this story?  Let us know your thoughts. 

We believe that democracy means that the government should listen to all interests.  Currently it seems clear that only certain interests have the ear of government. 

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer