Trust the Trojan Rig in the fight for the minds of Canadians

The big challenge is convincing Canadians to be courageous enough to take off the blinkers that have so effectively sidelined them to date

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david suzukiCALGARY, Alta., April 24, 2017 /Troy Media/ – Most everyone is familiar with the Trojan Horse tale. Can Canada’s oil and gas sector learn something from the ancient Greeks?

Perhaps. Think Trojan Rig.

Here’s the one-minute refresher: The Greeks had been laying siege, rather fruitlessly, to the the city of Troy. Frustrated after a decade, they built a massive wooden horse and left it at Troy’s gate and seemingly abandoned their quest. The jubilant Trojans, despite warnings (beware Greeks bearing gifts and all that), opened the gate, hauled in the horse and started to celebrate their victory.

Whoops.

And the rest, as they say, is history. We all know how that miscalculation ended for Troy.

We have a similarly fruitless siege going on in Canada today; the petroleum sector playing the part of the Greeks (camped outside the gate) and the Trojan ramparts being manned by politicians and special interest and activist groups intent on blocking the oil and gas community from connecting to ordinary Canadians. Our “siege” manifests in many ways, not the least of which is the polarizing nature of contemporary energy dialogue, which instead of being constructive and productive is more often than not destructive. Regulatory institutions that served Canada well, for example, have fallen like matchsticks before the onslaught of noisy and shrill opposition from a small cadre of well-organized voices.

As a result, they can stand atop the ramparts of policy and legislation and both flout the population’s will and flaunt their protected positions.

So a contemporary reworking of the tale is timely. Our challenge is this: How does the oil patch get its (metaphorical) Trojan Rig past those ramparts and into a more direct connectivity with more Canadians? Only once oil and gas advocates are beyond the ramparts can they begin conversing with Canadians in a way that rebalances the narrative scales.

The first thing would be to get the petro house in order. Put another way, the fossil fuel producers need figure out who gets to get into/onto the Trojan Rig. In other words, who do they trust to send past the ramparts?

Unlike the Greeks, however, the industry is not that organized. Nor does it seem to have much of a battle plan. Indeed, there are two camps that– while not at war with each – are not exactly aligned either.

In fact, there are actually two increasingly distinct petroleum sectors today. One is composed of companies and executives who get that times have changed; that Canadians for the most part have a different (and not unreasonable) set of expectations of their energy providers. Pragmatically, this Team Petro is prepared to work within that new socio-political realities. They get that Canadians worry about the environment and (generally) aren’t fussed (environmentally) about carbon taxes. This group is interested in dialogue and discussion; it is ready to try to at least seek legitimacy by connecting with Canadians on those new terms. They don’t use use communicative techniques and technologies no longer in vogue; most of which held folks economic hostage in one way or another to the energy sector’s existence.

The other, an equally discernible but almost diametrically different ‘patch’, is made up of companies and leaders who are more clearly frustrated and agitated with politicians and the shrill voices opposed to development. There is an-often palpable anger that simmers just below the surface in the ways and means they want to direct their messaging. The aggrieved nature of their communicative strategy typically falls on tone-deaf ears because the sector is not easy to understand – and easy to dislike.

The former group is more likely to carry the day, given its willingness to listen. The latter group would rather ram its message through unimpeded by ears carefully tuned to what Canadians really have to say – thoughts not filtered through political perceptions that flow from misguided misinterpretation of electoral mandates.

The good folks in Troy hauled the wooden horse past their gates because they believed (naively as it turns out) in their own invulnerability – and that the Greeks had accepted defeat. A similar hubris prevails today. (Some) governments and politicians mistakenly believe Canadians wouldn’t bat an eye if the petroleum sector announced it was shutting itself down. Activists and ENGOs would do victory dances around their board tables and party in the streets. Neither has a clear grasp of the consequences of an oil and gas sector crippled by short-sighted policy.

No practical person would entertain closing down the sector. They know energy is inextricably bound up in how their lives are lived. But they are (sometimes legitimately) suspicious that some parts of the energy sector aren’t bringing their best game. And they expect companies not just to mail it in.

So how do we equip our Trojan Rig? How about with moral authority – or at least something that resembles it the permission to acquire it. Now, moral authority is a slippery and fuzzy notion. But its premise is rooted in something more powerful than policy embedded within regulatory or legislative frameworks.

And while it may seem puzzling to raise something that smacks more of metaphysics in the context of something pragmatic (and mechanical) like oil and gas extraction, production and transportation, it provides a way of thinking through innovative ways of connecting to Canadians.

Frame it from a trust perspective. Trust is up for grabs on the Canadian energy landscape. Energy CEOs and politicians, for example, share space at the bottom of the public trust bucket. The key question is this: Which of the two stands the best chance of gaining trust?

There are a handful of CEOs from the first oil patch group that in meeting with ordinary citizens would move the trust meter far further and more rapidly than a typical politician. (Except perhaps Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall.) They just need the safe forum.

Think about Trojan Rigs of trust rolling into town halls across Canada, past the ramparts of provincial and federal policy. The topic: energy policy that focuses on the environment and the economy and that works for Canadians; policy that’s developed in the crucible of pragmatism, not behind the closed doors (and minds) of ideology.

The big challenge is convincing Canadians to be courageous enough to take up the dialogue challenge and help haul the Trojan Rig past the ramparts. Such a dialogue will help them thrust aside the blinders that have so effectively blinkered them to date.

Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.

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