Inside Alberta's plan to build its own diplomacy in the U.S.

·6 min read
After years of protests against Keystone XL and other pipelines, like this protest in 2017 outside the White House, Alberta is launching new PR campaigns in the U.S. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters - image credit)
After years of protests against Keystone XL and other pipelines, like this protest in 2017 outside the White House, Alberta is launching new PR campaigns in the U.S. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters - image credit)

New documents reveal details of a multimillion-dollar plan from the province of Alberta to promote itself in the United States and expand its international diplomacy in an era of tension over energy policy.

The plans are laid out in two sets of documents filed last month on an American federal website that tracks foreign political activity in the U.S.

Alberta plans to open offices in several U.S. cities, and these filings offer details on a pair of concurrent projects: a $1.7-million American advertising campaign on energy, and a more wide-ranging $2-million public-relations program.

Alberta's enhanced diplomatic presence comes amid impassioned debates over oil and the future of energy production, which have pitted Alberta against the national governments of both Canada and the U.S.

Premier Jason Kenney told a U.S. podcast this week that too many Americans seem unaware of the role Alberta plays, and can play, in supplying the U.S. with energy. He shared an anecdote from his last trip to Washington to illustrate a point: that his province's story isn't being heard in the corridors of federal power.

"I'm schlepping around in a yellow cab, I can barely get a meeting with a janitor in the State Department. But the emir of Oman blows into town … in a 40-car motorcade. And every door is open to him," Kenney told the conservative podcast Ruthless in an episode aired Tuesday.

"And Oman is responsible for less than five per cent of U.S. energy imports. It's a really strange situation."

He voiced exasperation with the federal governments in both the U.S. and Canada.

Mike Blake/Reuters
Mike Blake/Reuters

Feeling neglected by Biden and Trudeau

Kenney chided the Biden administration for cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, then scrambling, amid a surge in oil prices, to get more imports from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela.

"Why didn't they give us a call? We're your closest friends and neighbours," Kenney said. "It just makes absolutely no sense."

WATCH | Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says a Keystone XL successor project would benefit the province and Canada:

Kenney also offered details in the U.S. interview on his annoyance that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau failed to push back against President Joe Biden. Just before Biden's inauguration, last year, Kenney said he got wind of Biden's plan to cancel Keystone XL and pleaded with the prime minister to call the incoming president and lobby against it.

"[Trudeau] wouldn't do it. … They just rolled over. It was abject surrender," Kenney said.

Those comments from the premier add context to the province's planned advocacy efforts, spelled out in newly published documents.

One project involves a $1.7-million advertising campaign already underway and led by what's often referred to as the province's energy war room — the provincially funded, arm's-length Canadian Energy Centre.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press
Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

What Alberta's U.S. document-filings say

Alberta has begun placing ads in U.S. media saying that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the energy conversation; that oil will be around for decades; and that Canada is the reliable partner the U.S. needs.

The ads have appeared in The Washington Post and other U.S. outlets as Alberta oil backers seek to shift the cross-border political conversation in their favour.

The Canadian Energy Centre's executive director, Mike Simpson, referred to it as a global education effort. He told CBC News that the campaign has produced about 32 million ad-views since its launch on March 22, and 500,000 visits to a website titled Canada Is The Solution.

That advertising contract with DDB Canada was registered under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act and recently published on a website run by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Another new Alberta filing involves a broader diplomatic push.

Alberta recently announced plans to open three new diplomatic offices in Chicago, Seattle and Denver, emulating a model deployed decades ago by Quebec, which has offices in nine U.S. cities and numerous countries. Unlike Quebec's operations, Alberta's offices will be inside existing Canadian consulates.

New offices, new polls, new PR

In December, the provincial government requested proposals for a company to provide several services as part of a $2 million, two-year contract. Those services include briefings between Alberta officials with U.S. journalists; daily news monitoring; arranging appearances on U.S. television and radio; and drafting speeches and written materials for Alberta representatives.

The province also earmarked $160,000 for three public-opinion polls: one initial survey this spring gauging the attitudes of "nationwide opinion elites," then polls in 2023 and 2024.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Alberta's envoy to Washington said the expense is well worth it given the economics at stake: the province exported more than $77 billion to the U.S. in 2020, and that was before oil prices surged.

"The size of the relationship justifies this," James Rajotte said in an interview with CBC News. "Getting the attention of the world's most powerful country? It takes a lot of sustained effort to do that."

Alberta envoy's 'eureka' moment

Rajotte, a former federal MP, said he had a wake-up call shortly after moving to the U.S. capital after being posted there two years ago. He said he realized his province had only a couple of government employees in the United States while Quebec has offices in many U.S. cities and has scores of representatives in the country.

"It was just sort of a eureka moment," he said.

He cited different objectives for this new outreach: one is defensive, as in defending Alberta's interests on trade irritants, as with energy or beef labelling. Another is more forward-looking in seeking new trade opportunities in the tech sector, agriculture and energy.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Some details on Alberta's planned messages are embedded in the contract documents posted online.

That contract was awarded to JDA Frontline, a Washington-based part of the Seven Letter communications firm, which lists as a subcontractor Crestview Strategy and its partner Maryscott Greenwood, head of the Canadian American Business Council.

The climate concerns Alberta's confronting

In its proposal, JDA Frontline promised to convey the messages that:

  • Alberta is a more ideal supplier than countries like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

A new study by S&P Global Commodity Insights says Alberta oilsands emissions are undergoing significant enough declines per unit of production that they could soon decrease even if production grows.

But oilsands emissions remain higher than most other crudes.

Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

That environmental cost has made the oilsands a target, as the world struggles to keep emissions from hitting catastrophic levels. Biden cited those environmental concerns when he cancelled Keystone XL on his first day in office, calling it contrary to his goals on climate change.

It's not clear what sorts of short-term objectives the province hopes to achieve from its promotional investments. There's no sign of Keystone XL being revived; the big Line 3 pipeline expansion is complete; and Democrats seem in no hurry to close Line 5.

Provincial officials contacted by CBC News did not identify U.S. policy changes they're hoping to achieve in the short term.

One former provincial official who has worked in energy and in communications said this kind of outreach isn't solely about immediate objectives.

"This is a long-term exercise," said Navigator Ltd.'s Stefan Baranski, who was communications director to ex-premier Alison Redford and later worked at TC Energy, the company behind Keystone XL.

He said it's only fair that Alberta try telling more of its own story: he said the private sector has not always communicated it effectively, and that it makes sense not to rely exclusively on the federal government to do it.

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