Who pays CBC panelist to shill for Keystone XL?

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When you hear folks expressing opinions on national television you may not be aware of who helps pay their mortgages -- or golf club memberships.

On CBC's The National, last week, the "At Issue" panel was discussing the recent leaders' meeting in Mexico where, yet again, Prime Minister Harper failed to convince President Obama to give his blessing to the Keystone XL pipeline.

Two of the panelists, the National Post's Andrew Coyne and pollster and "communications counselor" Bruce Anderson, agreed that the most recent U.S. State Department report on the pipeline had, in effect, given Keystone XL a green light.

If Obama still demurred, they both argued, it was for strictly "political reasons."

The mid-term elections for the complete House of Representatives and a third of the Senate are coming in November and Obama's "base" -- green, left-of-centre Democrats, it seems -- does not like Keystone. Ergo, the President has to delay his decision on the pipeline.

Huffington Post's Althia Raj, pinch-hitting on the panel for Chantal Hébert, offered that if Harper wished to at least make an effort to placate Obama and his green supporters he could proceed with his long promised emission regulations for Canada's oil and gas sector.

Whenever she is asked about those regulations, Harper's hapless Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, is the one who demurs, and carefully dodges the issue.

To Raj, dealing with those emission regulations seemed like a "no-brainer," because not having them is a definite drag on Canada's already tarnished environmental reputation.

Coyne and Anderson were not impressed, however, and dismissed that policy-based argument out of hand.

They insisted that the U.S. State Department's supposed "approval" of Keystone would normally be good enough to convince the President, were it not for the pesky environmentalists to whom he has to pander in an election year.

As a matter of fact, the two men on the "At Issue" panel were misrepresenting the State Department report. It did not find the tar sands operation to be anything near a model of environmental virtue.

That report's main finding was that constructing Keystone XL to transport Alberta bitumen to U.S. refineries would not necessarily contribute to an increase in global greenhouse gas emissions, because that bitumen would likely find its way to market one way or the other, even if the pipeline were not built.

That is a fairly weak and backhanded endorsement.

For the pipeline's proponents, it is, at best, a sort of victory on a narrow technicality.

The Dene people feel the full negative effects of tar sands extraction

The wider environmental damage of the entire Athabasca bitumen mining enterprise -- including not only greenhouse gases but also impact on the vast Athabasca territory -- was not within the purview of the State Department's study.

This week, however, the Dene of Fort Chipewyan, on the Alberta-Northwest Territories border, have put that wider damage on the U.S. political agenda.

The Dene are the ones who have paid the biggest price for tar sands development, while gaining the least, and they are now in Washington D.C. to share their story with the U.S. Congress.

It is a story of a once-pristine wilderness that is now irreparably destroyed. And it is a sad and bitter story of grave and immediate health consequences for the Dene, who have survived in that wilderness for many, many centuries.

The fact is that the extraction of bitumen from the tar sands not only uses enormous energy, thus producing huge quantities of greenhouse gases, it also despoils great tracts of land and, worse, massive volumes of fresh water.

One of the active tar sands corporate players, Calgary-based Cenovus, has a television commercial that underscores that point.

The ad is called "Rising to the challenges" and it shows, in a fast-paced series of images, how, in its natural state, tar sands oil is mixed with "more sand than the desert," locked between "multiple layers of rock," covered in "dense forest," compressed by as much as "100 stories of earth" and is often as "hard as a hockey puck."

"Try getting oil out of that," the ad concludes, a bit truculently.

Whatever Cenovus' (and its ad agency's) intentions, the viewer cannot help but conclude that "getting out" that oil would not only be hugely energy-intensive, it would also have to be immensely destructive of those "multiple layers of rock," those "dense forests," the "100 stories of earth" and whatever water there was nearby.

When he first saw that ad, this writer thought it was, in fact, placed by environmental critics of the tar sands, not by an oil company.

Cenovus says it has a pressurized steam method of extracting tar sands bitumen that is much less harmful to the environment than the usual open-pit mining method, which involves scraping away at the earth and dumping enormous quantities of poisonous tailings into nearby waterways.

But the fact is that most tar sands extraction does not use the steam method, and Cenovus' own description of the tar sands "challenge" underscores how dubious the entire activity is from an environmental point of view.

Have a look at Anderson's client list

There is another thing to know about Cenovus. The company is one of "At Issue" panelist Bruce Anderson's many oil industry clients. He proudly lists those clients on his online bio.

Other current or former Anderson clients include: Enbridge, Imperial Oil, BP, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association and the Mining Association of Canada.

And that is just part of a very long list, which does not, however, include any Aboriginal, environmental or labour groups.

Like Rex Murphy, Anderson is not a CBC staff person, covered by any journalistic policy. He is on the air to express opinions, and he does not try to hide his corporate connections. He is quite proud of them. They are, after all, a measure of his professional success.

Is it, however, in any way possible that the views he expresses on the CBC might be just a wee bit influenced by the way he makes his living?

The next time you hear Bruce Anderson expound on how President Obama's apparent environmentalism is purely an artifact of base political expediency, think about the economic imperatives to which Anderson is subject. In other words, think about his professional clients and what he does for them, in his day job.

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