ReThink Alberta? How about, Take a Valium, Alberta?

One of Corporate Ethics International’s notorious billboards. Below: Premier Ed Stelmach, in Edmonton Journal photo. “We absolutely will fight back!”

Talk about getting value for your money!

A hitherto little-known San Francisco-based group called Corporate Ethics International last week announced it had bought a small number of billboards in the United States calling Alberta an environmental villain for the way it’s developing the Athabasca tarsands and urging Americans to rethink their Albertan holiday plans.

In response, tout le monde Alberta flipped its collective lid.

The government promised a massive taxpayer-financed public relations counterattack that, if past PR efforts by Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservatives are any yardstick, is bound to create more enemies than friends. “We absolutely will fight back,” a defensive Premier Stelmach vowed at a Calgary news conference. “…This is something we’re going to push hard against.” Stand by for scores of Alberta Cabinet ministers jetting off to luxury hotels in the power centres of the United States, their official credit cards ready for a workout.

Opposition politicians, petroleum industry lobbyists and flacks, mainstream media commentators and many ordinary Albertans appear to have been driven into a state of utter hysteria by CEI’s campaign. Wildrose Alliance chief Danielle Smith demanded a great council of war to discuss Alberta’s response. (Premier Stelmach, to his credit, sensibly declined.) Random commentators on the Edmonton Journal’s Website accused such well-known international fiends as Quebec and the European Union of being behind the billboards for reasons of sinister self-interest. (No one mentioned a beast with seven heads and ten horns, but this being Alberta, it’s only a matter of time.)

If they hear about any of this, bemused Americans must think, “methinks these Canadians doth protest too much!”

Despite the high-pitched rhetoric on the billboards – which depict an oil-soaked pelican in the Gulf of Mexico and a couple of oil-soaked ducks in Alberta, and declares this province to be “the other oil disaster” – reporting on the campaign has been pretty vague and takes many of CEI’s claims at face value.

There are said to be billboards in four American cities, which the environmental group says cost as much as $50,000 US. But no journalist seems to have thought to ask exactly how many billboards this sum actually purchased in Denver, Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis.

Well, I can tell you, as a matter of fact, seeing as my work involves buying billboards from time to time. The answer would be … about four.

So for the cost of one billboard each in Minneapolis and three other third-tier U.S. cities – apparently similar signs in the likes of New York and Los Angeles just cost too much – CEI has the chattering class of Alberta and the entire population of Calgary in a mortal swivet!

There’s more, of course, CEI has also promised an on-line advertising campaign – which I can also tell you is a bargain compared to other forms of advertising – linking to a Website called ReThinkAlberta.org with a clever rendering of Alberta’s new “corporate” logo smeared with oil. What’s more, they promise, there will be a billboard-beachhead in Europe. Where, one wonders – Düsseldorf and Reims?

Now, as the people behind CEI surely know even if the combined great minds of Alberta can’t figure it out, this campaign is unlikely to succeed at its stated goal of completely shutting down oil extraction operations in the tarsands. In a petroleum dependent – and increasingly petroleum short – world, that just ain’t gonna happen.

But they have effectively undermined the Alberta government’s dubious campaign south of the border to portray tarsands mining as environmentally safer than other forms of hydrocarbon extraction.

What’s more, they may make a contribution to forcing the Alberta government – or some future Alberta government – to clean up our oil-extraction act. Because, let’s face it – as the tone of Alberta’s response to CEI’s billboards illustrated – this premier doth protest too much. All is not well in the Alberta oilpatch.

Environmental regulations are lax – and likely to get laxer. Most of the money we spend on the environment is going into to a scientifically dubious carbon capture boondoggle. Irresponsible energy companies with no commitment to anything but their own bottom lines call the tune in this province. Tarsands development has been hurried and poorly planned – barely brought under control by the recession. Regulatory agencies are understaffed and under-funded.

And you know what? No matter how high Ed Stelmach’s blood pressure goes, those ducks on that billboard didn’t just fall out of the sky!

Many of the issues identified by the ReThink Alberta campaign are in fact legitimate concerns, even if their details are not precisely accurate or their rhetoric is intentionally overblown.

In the mean time, far more U.S. tourists are likely to rethink their Alberta holiday plans because of the overheated Canadian dollar – encouraged by our federal Conservative government, not black helicopters from the EU – than because they happened to see a billboard in Minneapolis.

So here’s a three-part program for effectively responding to ReThink Alberta:

  1. Start acting responsibly about the environment, and put some money and effort into commonsense regulation.
  2. Charge fair prices for tourists from Canada and the U.S. who come to Alberta.
  3. Take a Valium, Alberta!

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

7 Comments on "ReThink Alberta? How about, Take a Valium, Alberta?"

  1. Marlin says:

    Dave, I agree with recommendations 1 and 3, but fail to see how charging tourists "fair prices" would accomplish anything. Care to elaborate that point?

  2. workeradvocate says:

    We should not be surprised by the American advertisements. When Stelmach and Leipert downplay the death of the ducks, the window of opportunity opened.

  3. David J. Climenhaga says:

    A commenter asks me to elaborate on my throwaway line about charging fair prices for tourists. This is a whole different rant, of course, but the Canadian tourism industry has been actively engaged in ripping off Canadian tourists for as long as I can remember. I always thought, “a day will come…,” and now it has. This isn’t all that complicated. The bulk of our tourists come from the United States. If you rely on a weak Canadian dollar and a strong U.S. currency to make your profits, and charge Canadian tourists pretty well what you please for food and lodging and provide pretty lousy service along the way, things are going to end badly if the relative values of the Canadian and U.S. dollars ever switch. Well, guess what’s just happened. I can stay in a perfectly nice hotel in New York City for about the same price as a crappy motel in Grande Prairie or Pincher Creek, and those places are cheaper than Banff of Jasper. While in New York, I can eat far better food for much less. Notwithstanding their entirely fictional reputation for rudeness, the staff in New York will treat me like my money matters. Now, if I go to Mexico, the staff in my hotel will treat me like I’m the king of Siam. Granted, they’d like His Majesty to buy a timeshare, but, hey, you can’t have everything! Staff in Alberta, meanwhile, will treat me like dirt. Yeah, the Rockies are magnificent. But the prices and service are not. Now, a couple of billboards in Portland and Minneapolis may persuade a few dozen people of the kind who boycott everything not to come to Banff, if they’ve even noticed Banff is in Alberta. But crappy service, bad food and high prices – and with a weak U.S. dollar and a strong Loonie, our prices are sky-high – will make them stay away in droves. You could argue that this billboard campaign is the best thing to happen to Alberta tourism for a while. A few locals may forgo a better time somewhere else to visit out of a sense of patriotism. But most of all, the business can blame U.S. environmentalists instead of their own obvious shortcomings. C’mon, people. If you offer good service and good food for a fair price, Americans and Canadians will visit.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I'm not sure what part of ReThink Alberta's information is overblown rhetoric. Maybe you can clarify for me.

    A group of citizens and indigenous groups who oppose tar sands expansion and advocate cleanup AND support 'economic sanctions vis a vis tourism' based on ethics seems reasonable.

    Truth telling is often labeled as rhetoric when it is actually a highly revolutionary act – especially here in AB.

    And, I, (perhaps just one of a few) am very disappointed that "progressives" here are unable to see environmental racism / climate justice as a primary focus or policy analysis. How progressive is that?

    T Evans

  5. Holly Stick says:

    Meanwhile the federal government is betraying Canadians over the tar sands:
    http://www.desmogblog.com/bombshell-canadian-govt-committee-tears-critical-tar-sands-report

    Andrew Nikiforuk reports on what they don't want Canadians to know about:
    http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2010/07/15/TarSandsReport/?utm_source=mondayheadlines&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=190710

  6. everiman says:

    Tourists in Grande Prairie? Pincher Creek? It isn't the tourists who are getting ripped off, it's Bub Slug and his workmates that the ahem, 'hospitality' industry has been mining for gold (the ordinary kind).

  7. Anonymous says:

    The bulk of our tourists do not come from the US. The bulk of our tourists are "internal" tourists ie Canadians.

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