Big oil forced Regina city council to back down from climate action: Report

·5 min read
Regina's city councillors faced a lot of opposition when the city considered banning the fossil fuel industry from city-related advertising and sponsorship, according to a report by the independent think-tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)
Regina's city councillors faced a lot of opposition when the city considered banning the fossil fuel industry from city-related advertising and sponsorship, according to a report by the independent think-tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)

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Regina's city councillors were bullied by the fossil fuel industry when the city tried to distance itself from the industry, according to a new report by the independent think-tank Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

The situation arose when the city, which in 2018 pledged to become 100 per cent renewable by 2050, set out to add fossil fuel companies to a list of industries that can't advertise or sponsor city events or buildings. The proposal, made on Jan. 20, 2021, was informally adopted by a 7-4 vote and needed to pass a full city council vote seven days later to become policy.

However, what followed was described by Mayor Sandra Masters as an "avalanche" of opposition, kicked off by Premier Scott Moe, according to the report. And the motion was withdrawn at the Jan. 27 council meeting.

Simon Enoch, director of the CCPA's Saskatchewan office and co-author of the report, concluded that if city councillors are to face this level of lobbying in the future, they'll need more resources.

'Threats and abuse'

"Councillors were subjected to a litany of threats and abuse, even threats to their economic livelihoods," Enoch said.

It's a situation which could play out in other cities as local governments aim to adopt more aggressive climate policies, according to the Big Oil in City Hall report, co-authored by Enoch and Roxanne Korpan, which was published by the CCPA on Dec. 15.

As the capital of Saskatchewan, the second-largest oil producing province in Canada after Alberta, Regina's climate policies are often more ambitious than those of the province, according to the report.

When Coun. Dan LeBlanc first introduced the idea of the ban, his rationale was that the city shouldn't accept money from the fossil fuel sector because of conflicting values.

Provincial response

Premier Moe quickly issued a statement condemning the initial proposal.

"This motion is a hypocritical attack on the hardworking workers and employers that fuel Saskatchewan's economy and fund important community initiatives through voluntary sponsorships," Moe said.

In his statement, the premier said his government would "seriously consider the future of sponsorships to the City of Regina from provincial energy companies like SaskEnergy and SaskPower."

And Moe made it known that if the motion passed, he would assume the city no longer wanted to receive its share of municipal surcharges from SaskPower and SaskEnergy, "which could instead be distributed to other Saskatchewan municipalities."

According to the report: "Over the next seven days, city councillors would be subject to an advocacy campaign and lobbying effort on behalf of the oil and gas industry and its allies that is rarely seen at the municipal level."

Councillors heard from citizens, national industry groups such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), and federal Conservatives such as Andrew Scheer, who at the time was the leader of the Opposition, and Regina-Wascana MP Michael Kram.

The report said calls from industry groups like CAPP, businesses such as the Keystone Group of Companies and organizations like the Regina Chamber of Commerce, mobilized fossil fuel supporters with scripted emails against the motion.

According to the report, several councillors who originally supported the measure were persuaded to drop their support because residents who agreed with the city's climate goals felt the motion had become too controversial.

"It may be that the more adversarial climate politics that succeed in other places have less purchase in Saskatchewan, where climate politics are still somewhat novel," the report stated, adding this may change.

Reaction to the report

The report has received little to no response to date.

The premier's office was not available comment.

Regina-based Craig Lothian, president and CEO of Keystone Royalty Corp. and the executive chair of Lex Capital Management Inc., a private equity firm that invests in the energy sector, declined to comment.

Tony Playter, the Regina Chamber of Commerce's communications officer, declined to comment before discussing the report with the leadership team.

CAPP spokesperson Jay Averill said industry workers and supporters were offended by the original proposal to ban fossil fuel companies from city-related advertising or sponsorship.

That's why "thousands of people across Saskatchewan, who are in favour of responsible oil and natural gas development" sent letters to city council, Averill said. "In the end we felt the reversal of the proposed advertising ban was the right decision."

Coun. LeBlanc was not available to comment.

Regina's Mayor Masters said the whole experience reminded her of the importance of being thoughtful and mindful of others.

"Our job is to, in some respects, meet them where they're at, so that when you do have to make tough decisions that are going to create an enormous reaction, you can say you followed thoughtful process … and you can stand behind a decision, which actually has consequences."

When writing the report, Enoch said the authors had to keep the identities of the councillors they interviewed anonymous because of the gravity of the threats they had received. He noted that being on the city council is not considered a full-time job.

Looking to the future

"Councillors often have another line of work and people used this vulnerability to threaten the economic livelihoods of certain councillors. And a number of the councillors we interviewed were worried that this may have a chilling effect on the council's appetite to take a stand on controversial issues in the future," he said.

The report said the campaign against the original city proposal caught people off guard.

"Yet, we believe that this was only the first skirmish in what will be a much longer climate battle in our cities, particularly in western Canada," the report stated.

"Indeed there are already hints that the City of Regina's Energy and Sustainability Action Plan, which is slated to be released this winter, may include a proposal to ban fossil fuel heating in new buildings. We can fully expect the same coterie of interests that opposed the sponsorship amendment to push back on this proposal as well."

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