Undue influence?

Elizabeth Brubaker

A new Polaris Institute report documents a “staggering” rate of lobbying by Canada’s petroleum industry. Big Oil’s Oily Grasp, released last week, records the lobbying activities of 27 companies and eight large industry associations between July 2008 and November 2012. During that period, the industry logged 2,733 “communications” with federal politicians and high-level bureaucrats. (Communications can range from phone calls to meetings to junkets, but do not include emails and letters.)

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) led the lobbying efforts with 536 communications. Two other prominent industry associations, the Canadian Gas Association (CGA) and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), recorded 270 and 198 communications respectively. Two pipeline companies were also near the top of the list – TransCanada, with 279 communications, and Enbridge, with 143. Industry associations and firms had regular access not only to MPs and senior bureaucrats but also to cabinet ministers. Between them, six major players had 53 meetings with cabinet ministers in the last year. They lobbied on a number of environmental issues, suggesting changes to the Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, and the Species at Risk Act.

Lobbying by the oil and gas industry overwhelmed that by environmental organizations. The 11 environmental groups that have registered lobbyists since 2008 have recorded just 485 communications. Only one environmental group has reported a communication with a cabinet minister in the last year.

Some of the conclusions in the Polaris Institute report are unwarranted: The data do not support the equation of lobbying with corruption or the conclusion that Canada has become a “petro-state.” But the data do raise important questions about how public policy is made and who has access to and influence over decision makers.

It seems clear that access to policy makers is, as the report suggests, “quite asymmetrical.” It is almost impossible to imagine environmentalists or other concerned citizens being able to match the petroleum industry’s lobbying efforts. Although Canada does not require the disclosure of the amount of money invested in lobbying, the US does require this. In 2011, the US oil and gas industry spent almost $150 million lobbying the US government.

Of course, the petroleum industry invests such sums in lobbying the federal government because that is where many crucial decisions lie. If decision making were decentralized, as Environment Probe advocates, the industry would doubtless direct more of its resources to ensuring that individuals and communities benefited from its activities and embraced its proposals.

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