Ottawa ramps up ad spending for U.S. pipeline fight

Advertising and media relations spending by Natural Resources Canada is increasing dramatically this year as the Harper government takes the oilsands fight directly to American audiences.

$16.5M for 'responsible resource development' push, Harper heads to New York Thursday

The Harper government's new "Go With Canada" website is part of a $16.5 million advertising push. The prime minister heads to New York Thursday to promote Canada's oil and gas sector in the U.S. (CBC)

Ottawa is dramatically ramping up ad spending by Natural Resources Canada as the Conservatives take their environmental and natural resources fight directly to the American market.

Budgetary estimates show that $16.5 million has been set aside by the department for advertising in 2013-14 to highlight what the Harper government calls responsible resource development.

The total includes $4.5 million in the main estimates tabled in March and another $12 million in the government's supplementary estimates tabled late last week.

That's up from $9 million spent last year and just $237,000 in Natural Resources advertising in 2010-11.

The department also put out a tender this spring, worth up to $500,000, seeking "media relations training for the minister and senior NRCan officials, scientists, program personnel and communicators."

In addition to a massive TV ad blitz aimed at domestic audiences, Natural Resources has begun a U.S.-directed advertising offensive that includes promotions and ads in influential publications and a website for American viewers, gowithcanada.ca.

"Canadian pipelines are the environmentally responsible choice to meet America's oil energy needs," says the gowithcanada.ca home page.

Harper pitching for Keystone XL this week

The American campaign comes as Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels to New York on Thursday to make the pitch for Canadian oil and gas resources and promote TransCanada Corps' Keystone XL pipeline.

A decision from the Obama administration on the pipeline to carry Alberta bitumen to refineries on the Gulf Coast has become mired in U.S. domestic politics and a significant environmental backlash.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Environment Minister Peter Kent have been making regular pilgrimages to the United States as well as the European Union to tout Canada's resources and environmental record.

In an email Monday, Oliver said: "Canada will keep developing its natural resources for export to the United States in a way that ensures the environment is protected."

"It is important to present these key facts on our strong environment record and long-standing energy relationship to American decision makers and opinion leaders."

The current promotional onslaught has been years in the making.

As far back as March 2010, government officials met with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and agreed on a communications strategy "upping their game."

"The approach would be not just 'turn up the volume' ... it would change tact (sic) and address perceptions by showing that issues are being addressed and we have the right attitude," said a 2010 government memo.

But the gowithcanada.ca website has immediately been criticized by some environmental groups for misrepresenting the truth.

Website claims in dispute

The site asserts that "Innovation and research drives improvement in the oil sands — GHG emissions have dropped 26 per cent between 1990 and 2011."

In fact, Canada's greenhouse gas emissions more than tripled between 1990 and 2011. The emissions intensity per barrel of oil fell 26 per cent.

The website also presents the Environmental Assessment Act, which was rewritten in the last year's omnibus budget bill to make it much more industry-friendly, under the heading "Strengthening Environmental Protection."

"This is what happens when you fire or muzzle the environmental scientists and replace them with advertising executives," Keith Stewart, a climate campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, responded in an email.

"We need our government to force oil companies to clean up their act, not buy their ads for them."

Stewart said no amount of ad spending will "reduce greenhouse gas emissions, clean up those toxic lakes or deal fairly with affected First Nations."

Natural Resources would not disclose the budget for the U.S. promotion, but said it came out of the department's $16.5-million ad envelope.

"This advertising campaign is ongoing, and extensions will be assessed as the campaign continues," spokesman Paul Duchesne said in an email.

"Once this ongoing advertising campaign is complete, full costs will be released."

The Conservative government has recently come under sustained opposition criticism for its heavy advertising budget, which has included at least $113 million spent on "economic action plan" ads since the term was first coined for the 2009 stimulus budget.