VANCOUVER—Those reading major newspapers in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario over the past two days might have noticed a full-page ad placed by Calgary-based Enbridge.
The statement from the oil giant emphasized the company’s “99.999 per cent” pipeline safety record and its commitment to preventing oil spills.
While Enbridge maintains the ad was not a direct reaction to negative publicity it has been receiving in recent months, some critics are viewing it as an effort to win over those opposed to one of the company’s major proposed Canadian projects.
Enbridge’s pipeline safety record has been attacked recently by environmental advocates, politicians and the media due to several spills from its pipelines in the U.S. The criticism comes as the company is trying to gain approval for its controversial Northern Gateway project, which would take Alberta oil to northern B.C. to be shipped to foreign markets.
Indeed, it’s likely no coincidence that a prominent industry group staged a separate news conference Thursday in Ottawa to promote an existing program aimed at making pipelines safer and more environmentally sound.
Mike Hillman, a former B.C. Liberal party campaign manager and a former public affairs consultant, said the Enbridge ad indicates the company may be trying to “play catch-up” with those opposed to Northern Gateway.
Hillman said if Enbridge is trying to garner support for the project, it should have made the company’s pipeline safety statistics more apparent to the public sooner.
“If in fact you have an exceptional record and you have qualities that are in fact very real, then there’s no reason why those things shouldn’t be known to people much earlier in its existence,” he said.
“By bringing out those things now, by the sounds of it, to counter some of the reactions to their project in B.C and to also recent incidents that have happened, it’s a bit of catch up.”
University of British Columbia social marketing professor Darren Dahl said the ad, which is a written statement by the company’s president Al Monaco and chief executive officer Pat Daniel, may also be an attempt to move public sentiment by giving out information that Enbridge feels is more accurate.
“If you asked someone 10 years ago about pipelines, they probably had no opinion or they’re like, ‘Yeah they’re well-managed,”’ Dahl said.
“But because of the high stakes of the (Northern Gateway) proposal, and there has been some pipeline incidents in past years that has caught the media’s attention, people don’t have the same neutral or positive attitude…towards pipelines.”
Indeed, Enbridge’s ad stresses the necessity of getting the facts on pipelines straight.
“Pipeline safety has been much in the news lately, and so it’s important to give the issue some context_to look beyond the latest headline and recognize the outstanding long-term safety record of this important energy delivery system,” Monaco and Daniel wrote.
But the company’s executive vice president of western access said the ad is not a direct response to some of the negative publicity it has been subjected to.
“We’re just trying to assure the public that we do take safety very seriously,” Janet Holder, executive vice-president, Western Access at Enbridge, told the Canadian Press in a phone interview. Holder is responsible for overall leadership for the Northern Gateway project.
“This just further enhances that we take safety very seriously and that our track record would show that.”
Last month, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board criticized Enbridge’s response to a pipeline spill of millions of litres of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River on July 25, 2010, affecting more than 50 kilometres of waterways and wetlands.
Shortly after the scathing U.S. report, which likened Enbridge to the “Keystone Kops,” Enbridge announced it would invest another $500 million in safety improvements to the Northern Gateway pipeline.
But the oil giant continues to see opposition to the proposal.
Hillman said Enbridge would need to do much more than placing an ad if it wants to persuade British Columbians to support Northern Gateway.
“As much as you like to have a large flag that you can wave, the reality is you’re still dealing with aboriginal communities, and with others all the way along the pipeline and other interest groups,” he said.
“You need to be able to work with them and develop those relationships as well.”
“There’s no question, we know we have a lot of work to do, especially in the province of British Columbia, to convince the public that Enbridge is a respectable company, that we can build pipelines in a safe and reliable and sustainable way,” she said.
“I wouldn’t say we’re ready to say it’s working yet—I believe we have a lot of more work to do, but we have some time on our side, and we will continue helping the public understand who we are.”
In Ottawa, the head of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, Brenda Kenny, acknowledged the industry is playing catch-up when it comes to countering the negative perception some people have of pipelines.
“As a sector, we’re coming to this late in terms of going public with the programs we have underway,” Kenny said.
“We should have been more communicative earlier. This is a sector that’s been operating very, very safely— and frankly, below the radar screen—for many, many decades. We recognize that it is of high importance to Canadians at this point in time, and very important to our country. So you will be seeing a lot more of us.”
The association’s news conference Thursday on Parliament Hill was intended to draw attention to an initiative that has been in place for about four years aimed making pipelines safer and more environmentally sound.
Kenny said her group plans to ramp up communications to better publicize the program, but dismissed the suggestion it amounted to little more than a public-relations effort.
“This is absolutely not a PR exercise,” she said.
“We owe it to Canadians to deliver infrastructure that is the safest in the world, and we owe it to Canadians to provide information that helps them make their own decisions about how they feel based on the facts.”