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‘Petroturfing’ Turned Fringe Messaging into a Major Movement

How corporate ads, right wing media and Ezra Levant politically sold Canadian oil and gas. A Tyee Q&A.

Sarah Krichel 21 Jun 2024The Tyee

Sarah Krichel is The Tyee’s social media manager.

With over 300,000 followers, the Oil Sands Action Facebook page boasts a banner of diverse smiling faces sporting “I Love Canadian Oil & Gas” T-shirts and sweaters. Some are working in construction, some are playing hockey or snowboarding, some stand in front of pristine wilderness. It’s a glimpse into what Jordan B. Kinder calls the petroturfing project.

Kinder, an assistant professor in communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo and a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, defines “petroturfing” as efforts from well-connected groups, organizations and campaigns that work to rebrand Canadian oil as economically, socially and ecologically progressive.

The phrase is a riff on “astroturfing,” Kinder told The Tyee. A petroturfing project or campaign dubiously stakes out distance from industry and government while claiming that the oil and gas industry is under threat.

Meanwhile, the oilsands continue to enjoy record-breaking production, “pretty much every year since its commercialization in the 1960s,” he added.

According to his book Petroturfing: Refining Canadian Oil Through Social Media, Canada is an opportune and crucial place to study the “oil culture wars.” It’s home to the third-largest oil reserves on the planet — 97 per cent in Alberta’s oilsands. The vast majority of those oil exports go to the fuel-hungry United States, leaving Canada “deeply enmeshed” in the U.S. fossil fuel economy.

Kinder connects the beginning of the petroturfing project to Rebel Media’s Ezra Levant and his 2010 book Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands. Levant’s book challenged notions of “dirty oil” in public consciousness and worked to rebrand Canadian oil as the ethical choice over Middle Eastern oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan. To do this, Ethical Oil used racist tropes and equated Canadian oil “with the kinds of liberal, equality-based gender politics of the West.”

“The petroturfing project has always had pretty clear relationships with the official conservative political apparatus,” said Kinder.

“As for the role in winning the upcoming election, all I can really say is that some of these groups are working overtime to endorse Poilievre,” he added.

The Tyee spoke with Kinder to check in on where the petroturfing project has landed Canada, how we underestimate the power of seemingly fringe messaging online and how we can apply lessons to other emerging far-right movements.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: How would you distinguish news media’s role from social media’s role in allowing the petroturfing project to flourish?

Jordan B. Kinder: Social media is the primary space through which petroturfing groups establish themselves and gain circulation. News media, both intentionally and not, has amplified the voices of the petroturfing project.

We know that mainstream Canadian news media is predominantly right-leaning if not full-on right-wing and largely monopolized under the ownership of Postmedia. It’s no accident that, for instance, the founder of Canada Action, Cody Battershill, got a write-up in the National Post back in 2014 that describes him as a “one-man oilsands advocate” who was valiantly and selflessly challenging celebrity anti-oilsands activism.

More generally speaking, I’ve seen coverage from outlets like CBC providing a platform for pro-oil voices in what I interpret as a commitment to journalistic balance and integrity, without dictating how journalists should do their jobs. In contexts like these I think it would better serve ideals of balance and integrity to question the consequences of amplifying certain views.

In the book, you mentioned some of your peers have suggested petroturfing campaigns and platforms are an easy target and not worthy of scholarly attention, but you argue that movements like the 2022 Freedom Convoy and 2019’s United We Roll provide proof of their ability to radicalize. Do you think we underestimate the effects of far-right messaging?

My short answer would be yes — and much to our detriment. A longer answer would need to discern who counts in the “we.” There are at least a couple of communities that could be included: a community of generally well-meaning, educated, small-l liberals on the one hand and, speaking broadly, the left.

The former, in my experience, has tended to underestimate the petroturfing project by discounting its possibility for reach, conditioned almost by a disbelief that no rational person would believe in this messaging. I suspect this sentiment has shifted a bit after the Freedom Convoy.

In the case of the left, there has been a tendency to read petroturfing as a genuine expression of working-class sentiments. A less than generous criticism of this is that some of the left who arrive at this position do so because they’re detached from the everyday working class. Frankly speaking, one of the goals of the petroturfing project is to self-present as representatives of the oil and gas working class, so taking that for granted is a misstep.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate working-class affects and anxieties being tapped into here, but, as I continue to stress, it only serves the interests of the fossil fuel industry rather than its workers to equate the messaging of the petroturfing project with the aims and desires of the working class.

The book serves as a warning that seemingly small-scale memes or social media posts have a much larger influence than we might think. How do you think the lessons from your book apply to other “new-right” movements?

Closer to when I started this book, I would have a much different answer, but we now have a surplus of examples of fringe, online phenomena having arguably outsized influence on society. Donald Trump’s election, for example, is sometimes attributed to these dynamics — first as a joke from a mingling of disaffected and radicalized [online users], then as a social reality.

My book is just as much about new-right mobilizations of social media as it is about the cultural politics of Canadian oil and its infrastructures today. It’s a warning, as you’ve suggested, of what happens when these emergent political communities and tendencies aren’t taken seriously, and an example of the kind of analysis that I think is necessary to understand and resist these movements.

A collage of photos of different people wearing 'I Love Canadian Oil & Gas' clothing.
The banner photo from the Facebook Oil Sands Action page, which boasts over 300,000 followers. Photo via Facebook.

Referring to former Alberta premier Jason Kenney’s Canadian Energy Centre, also known as the “war room,” you write that “petroturfing is now a formally institutionalized state project.” Can you explain the purpose of Kenney’s so-called war room in your own words, and what this project says about how right-wing movements can go from largely social-media-based efforts to on-the-ground ones?

The war room, which as you point out is officially, and I’d say innocuously, called the Canadian Energy Centre, is a provincially sponsored institute of sorts that receives something like $18 million annually to combat what the war room itself and the provincial government deem as misinformation spread online and off about the oilsands.

From what I can see, it has an integrated media strategy: producing what looks like conventional news media on its home page, spearheading largely online campaigns for support of the oilsands and its infrastructures, and other, more conventional PR-style efforts.

Throughout my book I suggest that the broader petroturfing project saturates the media environment with pro-oil narratives, and that saturation has soaked through. That government is now participating in and pioneering these kinds of media strategies speaks to this. This saturation helps to lubricate on-the-ground actions, like the United We Roll convoy or the demonstrations leading up to the convoy.

[Editor’s note: Since the time of this interview and the publication of the book, and following amendments to the federal Competition Act, the third-party agency has been integrated into government as part of Alberta’s intergovernmental relations department.]

You detail how the petroturfing project used progressive values to advance its agenda, from women to the LGBTQ2S+ community to Indigenous communities to the natural environment itself. How crucial is it for the oil economy to pander to these progressive values?

Part of the book is tracking a bit of a shift from a conventionally liberal, balance-based proposition of Canadian oil’s progressive characteristics that’s at the centre of Ezra Levant’s [book] Ethical Oil, to the more aggressive, let’s even just say Trumpian, nature of petroturfing that followed in the wake of Justin Trudeau’s election and, indeed, Donald Trump’s.

Even as I’m stepping away from examining this stuff, I’ve noticed less content that addresses 2SLGBTQ+ communities, which follows the recent and ongoing attacks on the community, especially the trans community. So in some senses I think at the current moment it’s less crucial to pander — as you’ve put it — to some of these values than it might have been a handful of years ago and certainly a decade ago.

This all is the result of the audiences of the petroturfing project becoming clearer.

Why do you think the oil industry deems it important to integrate Indigenous reclamation specifically into their campaigning for the oil and gas industry?

As a version of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples became enshrined in federal law, industry has its work cut out for it in terms of following the conditions. The oilsands and its infrastructures, like pipelines, operate on stolen Indigenous lands, whether these lands are treatied or not, as is the case in, for example, much of the Trans Mountain expansion’s route.

These land politics are a major source of industry uncertainty regarding the political viability of the oilsands. Ongoing Indigenous resistance, like the Unist'ot'en Camp, has provoked material and ideological half-measures to convince Indigenous communities and the broader public that reconciliation is a priority. I remain unconvinced. For readers interested in this angle, I encourage them to seek out Tlingit anthropologist Anne Spice’s work with the Unist'ot'en Camp.

You write, “Only one of the four pipelines mentioned in the book seem to have a secure future. But that doesn’t mean unrealized pipelines don’t haunt the present.” How successful would you say the petroturfing project has been?

I began this book when I was turned on to Ezra Levant’s Ethical Oil by a fellow grad student at the time, which I first understood as an egregious case of greenwashing. I was fascinated with the proposition that oil — and especially the oilsands — could be rhetorically and discursively made “green,” and that the claim could have enough legs to be published as a book by a legitimate publisher, McClelland & Stewart.

I was interested in the messaging itself rather than, say, the actors behind that messaging, because the whole thing remained pretty obscure and fringe. As I was following this emergent phenomenon, it became clear, especially around 2015-16, that this was all more than just a curiosity. I increasingly saw the phenomenon as one that tells us something about our complex and contradictory relationship to oil and other fossil fuels.

In terms of material impacts in getting pipelines built, I would suggest it hasn’t been particularly successful. What is worth noting, though, is that the only pipeline completed that appears in the book to date is the TMX, which really only happened because of the federal government’s buyout. The figure who receives a lot of vitriol from those behind the petroturfing project and its audiences — Justin Trudeau — is primarily responsible for it getting built.

The fact is, even cancelled pipelines can be revived. The war in Ukraine, for example, has made energy security a hot topic, which has led to calls to revive the cancelled Energy East pipeline. Even the Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline, which was more or less deemed unfeasible in the 1970s, continues to make an appearance in one form or another today.

This to me suggests that cancelled pipelines are, unfortunately, never truly dead.

Petroturfing: Refining Oil Through Social Media’ by Jordan B. Kinder is out now from the University of Minnesota Press.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Books, Politics, Alberta, Media

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