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

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Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach

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 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. (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 U.S. 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 David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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