Canada’s fossil fuel industry had more meetings with the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau than it did with the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper, lobbying data reveals.

During Justin Trudeau’s six years in power, lobbying by oil and gas companies and their associations increased by ten percent overall, raising concerns among environmental organizations that the frequent contact has undermined government climate action.

According to the lobby registry, government officials were lobbied on 6,874 unique occasions between Trudeau’s election in 2015 and this spring, representing an average of five lobbying contacts per working day and significantly more than other industries.

“With this rate of lobbying, it’s no wonder Canada continues to refuse to take bold climate action,” said Julia Levin, Climate & Energy Senior Program Manager at Environmental Defence. “We continue to give more subsidies and public financing to the oil and gas sector than other G20 countries, and continue to put forward climate targets and plans that don’t address the elephant in the room, which is the oil and gas sector.”

Extracting and refining oil and gas is the largest and fastest growing source of carbon emissions in Canada, according to the federal government’s inventory.

These emissions will cause Canada to miss its Paris Agreement target of a 40 percent reduction by 2030.

In a notable shift from the Harper era, senior government bureaucrats and hired political staffers rather than elected members of parliament have become the primary focus of lobbying under the Trudeau government.

According to the data assessed by The Breach, oil lobbyists also appear to have targeted certain senior civil servants who remained in their positions after the 2015 transfer of power from Conservatives to Liberals.

Some analysts described this as a sign of the emergence of a “deep oil state,” in which the state and private corporate interests are increasingly integrated.

“It suggests that elite policy networks outlast election cycles and potentially the stated platforms of elected officials,” said William Carroll, a professor of sociology at the University of Victoria and Co-Director of the Corporate Mapping Project who has studied the impact of lobbying on federal policy.

Lobbying is defined as communication with public officials about legislation or government contracts or granting. Lobbyists are prohibited from giving gifts, though individuals working for firms that hire lobbyists often donate to political parties.

The lobbying offensive

Stephen Harper cultivated close relations with the oil and gas industry during his almost decade in power, eliminating environmental regulations, downsizing ministries, and attacking critics of his policies.

Justin Trudeau’s government promised a sea change, but the lobbying data tells another story.

The leading lobbyists during both governments have been the Mining Association of Canada (MAC) and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). 

Contacts by the top mining lobby group significantly increased under Trudeau, while the activity of  CAPP, which was notoriously close to Harper, dropped only modestly. 

“Oil gas companies really lean on their industry lobby associations,” Levin said. “We often see that CAPP’s position will be a much harder line—so while individual companies claim they support carbon pricing, they can send in CAPP to try to beat back the policies.”

Canada’s emissions have continued to rise under the Trudeau government.

The next most active lobby group was the TC Energy Corporation, which made nearly 700 contacts with the Liberal government.  The Trudeau government remained big proponents of the company’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which was ultimately rejected by U.S. President Joe Biden. 

Suncor lobbyists, who met with public office holders 633 times under Harper and 760 under Trudeau, have been a consistent intervenor on impact assessments for fossil fuel projects.  

Overall, oil and gas corporations and their associations had five times more contact with government than environmental organizations.

A “Deep Oil State”

The data reveals a significant shift in lobbying under Trudeau, moving away from elected officials to unelected bureaucrats, which Carroll describes as the emergence of “deep oil state” in which entrenched oil interests may even qualify as a “state within a state.”

“If leading owners and executives of major private interests are inextricably linked with state managers who are committed to their interests, then those constitute a deep state,  to use a term that has been unfortunately coopted for the purpose of racist conspiracies,” Carroll said. 

“The fact that the fossil fuel lobby has chosen to target non-partisan bureaucrats with lobbying means that their investment in forming these relationships far outlast election cycles.”

Lobbying by fossil fuel companies has also became more tightly focused around fewer departments, primarily Natural Resources Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada, and around civil servants who remained in government from the Harper era.

Jay Khosla, until recently the Assistant Deputy Minister of Natural Resources, was the most heavily lobbied civil servant by the oil industry during both the Harper and Trudeau governments.

He conducted 150 meetings under Harper and 322 under Trudeau, according to the federal registry. 

Previous reporting by The Breach found that Khosla was a key organizer of meetings with the oil industry in 2020 at which senior officials with Natural Resources privately described themselves to oil lobbyists as the industry’s “champion in government.”

The second most lobbied civil servant, Mike Beale, an assistant deputy minister of Environment Canada, met with fossil fuel groups 124 times under Trudeau and 256 times under Harper.

In an interview, former Deputy Minister of Environment Canada Stephen Lucas said that he believes oil and gas “will be around for decades.”

Lucas, who was one of the most lobbied officials by the fossil fuel industry in the last decade, suggested that the increase in contacts with unelected officials could be because the consultation of the Liberal’s broad policy agenda is “administered by officials on behalf of ministers.”

In “trying to seek to influence or deal with more substantive policy considerations, they would deal with [unelected] officials,” he said.

“It’s possible they didn’t think they’d get far with elected officials because of the positions of the government,” he suggested as an alternative explanation.

Pandemic uptick in lobbying

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic saw an uptick in lobbying across all departments.

CAPP, which had decreased their lobbying efforts significantly when Trudeau took office, increased them again during the pandemic.

“Oil and gas companies coalesced around CAPP to push for their entire list of demands,  which would never have had the courage to push forward if it weren’t under the auspices of protecting the sector against the global crash,” Levin said.

Levin pointed to a secret memo that the CAPP sent to Trudeau’s cabinet in March 2020, which included a big wish list: defer the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, remove all barriers to oil and gas expansion, suspend the legal requirement to report lobby meetings with government, and give oil producers access to credit subsidies.

The Breach previously revealed that, around the same time, the Trudeau government formed a high-level secretive committee at the request of CAPP, at which they discussed reducing regulation and creating “opportunities” post-pandemic. 

Oil and gas producers did not receive the direct government bailout that they requested, but financial aid was provided in less overt ways. 

The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program (CEWS) permitted oil and gas companies to collect the subsidy and use it to pay out millions in dividends to shareholders.

Another form of financial support came in the form of the Corporate Bond Purchase Program (CBPP), which facilitated the purchase of bonds in a secondary market to rescue industries like the oil and gas sector.

At the start of the pandemic, the most direct bailout came in the form of a $1.7 billion package to fund the cleanup of thousands of both inactive and active orphan wells across British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. 

None of these relief packages come with any strings attached that would force these companies to transition away from fossil fuel energy.

“The oil and gas industry is more worried than it’s ever been, and so more willing to pull out all of the stops,” Levin said. “The next few years will be very important for Canada to determine what path we take.”

  • with files from Ben Cuthbert