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Turner's tips for oilsands opponents at a dinner party debate

We heard about a new campaign by Canada's petroleum producers to enlist everyday Canadians to talk up the benefits of oil and gas at dinner parties and in coffee shops. Here, former Green Party candidate Chris Turner shares tips for environmentalists seated at a table full of oil industry boosters.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers wants every day Canadians to feel better about publicly supporting the oil and gas industry. They've got a new campaign to enlist "Canada's Energy Citizens" to have positive conversations with friends and family at coffee shops and dinner parties.

Jeff Gaulin, the Vice President of Communications for CAPP, told us on our last program that there is peer pressure for many oil supporters to stay quiet.

The opposite perspective

Chris Turner has felt a bit of pressure to keep quiet about his views on the petroleum industry too, but for opposite reasons. He's a sustainability advocate, writer and speaker. He also ran for the Green Party in a Calgary riding in the last federal election.

As such, Turner says he's used to being the only person around the table advocating for a green economy. Because conversations about the oil industry can be highly emotional, he favours a "pragmatic" approach. 

During our last show, we heard a few scenarios proposed as conversation-starters from the oil industry, to be used at coffee with friends, at work, or at a dinner party. In response, we asked Chris Turner to share more about how he gets his message across, without the dinner getting really awkward.

Peer pressure?

When it comes to CAPP spokesman Jeff Gaulin's idea that it's peer pressure keeping supporters of the oil industry from speaking out, Turner says it would be difficult to prove that empirically.

He says, however, that many people do feel conflicted about their continuing use of oil products because of the effects that can have on the environment. In the midst of that conflict, he says he can see how many people might feel it best not to speak up in support of the industry, favouring instead to "go along to get along."

High stakes conversations

One thing he is sure of, is that conversations about the oil and gas industry, with all of its environmental and economic impacts, can be emotional and divisive. As a result, he works hard to keep discussions productive, recognizing that there are many people within the industry who are just as concerned about environmental issues as he is.

The industry is so pervasive here... I have to assume that someone in any given audience, dinner party or otherwise, might have a direct enough connection that I don't want to alienate them right out of the gate.- Chris Turner

"The oilsands as an actual industrial project...has become a very powerful symbol of many other things, either pro or con. So either a symbol of deep commitment to our current economic success of our country, that sort of thing, or a symbol of everything that's gone wrong," he explains.

Turner says finding a common starting point, assuming shared values, and avoiding hot-button language can help you engage in a productive discussion with even the most fervent oil sands supporters.

He says it's not a question of watering down your message, but finding some common respectful ground.

Time for a "do-over"

"We've become so entrenched now, on both sides," he says. "Both sides already feel they aren't being listened to at all, so if we could somehow start over and say 'Let's begin with the fact that we're both, you know, members of the same species on this planet, citizens of the same country, and probably mostly share some of the same goals and values, how do we work together and get to the next place?'"

He says he doesn't feel having these sorts of conversations waters down his environmental mission, but characterizes his approach as "pragmatic."

"We know that this is going to be a generational transition, it's going to take a very long time to move from one energy economy to another energy economy," he says. "So that by nature means that we are going to need to make a lot of compromises, and do a lot of collaboration, and weigh costs and benefits in a thousand different ways to get from point A to point B on this. Taking any particular thing and saying it is the litmus test, if you are for this you can't possibly be for what I'm for—I don't think that is a constructive way to move forward."

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