NL’s Oil Ambitions and Climate Change: Toward a Discourse Analysis


[***note*** This paper was presented at UArctic Extractive Industries in St. John’s on May 5th and is a draft. An expanded version now available at this link.] 

no burnTo begin, I would like to make some general comments on climate change and the context of climate change in Newfoundland and Labrador. At the 2012 Climate Change Summit in Doha, United Nations members reaffirmed that if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided governments must ensure that the average rise in world temperatures is no more than 2 degrees Celsius. In order for this to become reality, there must be an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that for an 80% reduction in emissions and to limit warming to “safe” levels, most known oil reserves will need to stay in the ground. A study by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins, published in Nature, models which of these reserves will need to be left alone, suggesting that all Arctic oil is unburnable. However, in recent years the Canadian government has been accused of willfully ignored these sorts of warnings and even pulled out of the UN Kyoto Protocol on climate change, with some commentators calling Canada a “rogue petrostate.”

With regard to the Newfoundland and Labrador context, a number of studies have suggested that climate change will impact the Labrador portion of the province more so than the island of Newfoundland and more so than global impacts of climate change generally. A report by Memorial University climatologist Joel Finnis predicts that by the middle of the 21st century, Labrador will experience a three degree Celsius rise in average temperature. The northern Labrador region, more specifically, is expected to see a rise in average winter temperatures of 5-6 degrees (7). Communities in northern Labrador will, in this sense, disproportionately be impacted by climate change, even though sparsely populated northern indigenous communities are responsible for virtually no emissions.

Of particular concern for Inuit communities is the impacts climate change will have on traditional foods and hunting grounds, as well as changing ice conditions. Isolated communities in northern Labrador rely on stable and predictable ice patterns as a means of transportation and for the procurement of traditional food like seals. Research conducted by Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, in a project called “Inuit Mental Health and Climate Change,” has demonstrated that already, even before the kinds of significant shifts climate models are predicting, climatic change in northern regions of Labrador is creating a mental health crisis, with increased incidents of depression among Inuit peoples. Cunsolo Willox has also collaborated in the production of a documentary called Lament for the Land, based on interviews conducted with Inuit people and residents of northern Labrador communities, which conveys in a poignant and straightforward manner the deeply rooted feelings of loss and grief over the social and cultural impacts of climate change.

The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has access to all this information, and has commissioned a number of studies through its Office of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. Yet at the same time, Newfoundland and Labrador is a province moving forward at all speed on new oil developments. On April 14th, 2015, St. John’s hosted the annual Arctic Oil and Gas North America Conference, which saw representatives from major oil companies, governments, and businesses associated with the offshore oil industry meeting to discuss plans to develop Arctic oil. The conference was opened by the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government’s Minister for Business, Tourism, Culture, and Rural Development, the Honourable Darin King, who said:

Newfoundland and Labrador has become synonymous with offshore oil and gas exploration and production in challenging environments – making the most of our strategic location on international shipping lanes and northern sea routes, our accessible ports, our strength in cold ocean research and development, and world-renowned expertise in Arctic-like conditions. With our mature offshore supply and service industry of over 600 companies supporting successful operation in challenging conditions, the Arctic Oil and Gas Conference provides us with a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the fundamental role our province will play in future Arctic activity.

In recent years, the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government has made it abundantly clear that it is keen to make the province a launchpad for Arctic oil development, drawing on local experience in offshore, cold water oil extraction.  Along these lines, Newfoundland and Labrador will host the 2016 Arctic Technology Conference and the government has also been promoting its Arctic Opportunities Initiative across the province.

On the same day, April 14th, 2015, the same day that Minister King opened the Arctic Oil and Gas Conference in St. John’s, the province’s premier, Paul Davis, was in Quebec City for a gathering of Canadian provincial and territorial leaders on the subject of climate change, a meeting called the Premier’s Climate Summit. Premier Paul Davis said of this climate summit:

Everyone agreed that climate change is a serious challenge and that provinces and territories have both the power and responsibility to take action. There was consensus on the importance of improving resilience to those climate change impacts that are now inevitable and also an understanding among leaders that transitioning to a lower carbon economy is not only important, but necessary.

April 14th, 2015, was an interesting day with respect to the confluence of seemingly contradictory provincial government policies being expressed in the public discourse at precisely the same time. News of both the events, the Arctic Oil and Gas Conference and the Climate Summit, was essentially presented side-by-side in mainstream media outlets, and yet none of the articles in mainstream media made linkages between the two, as though each existed in a vacuum or was otherwise compartmentalized. As these two events were presented to the public, both from provincial government press releases and in stories in mass media, Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore and Arctic oil ambitions could somehow coexist with a clear understanding of the serious problems posed by climate change.

My interest here is not so much in the science of climate change or in the economics of oil, but rather in the ways a particular set of discursive practices have been mobilized to attempt to resolve the disconnect between the province’s policies, specifically with reference to public commentary, news, and articles appearing in local media. A discourse, according to Sara Mills in her book Discourses of Difference, is “a set of sanctioned statements which have some institutionalised force, which means they have a profound influence on the way that individuals act and think” (55). So, for example, the term “legitimizing discourse of oil” signifies the discursive parameters within which various statements might present oil as legitimate. In a similar sense, various discourses may function in concert, reaffirming one another in some productive manner. There may be “groupings of statements” that, according to Mills, “have similar force … [and] act in a similar way” (56). For example, this may be true when examining a colonial discourse alongside a discourse of manifest destiny, generative of something like imperialism. But this pairing of complimentary discursive practices does not quite seem to be the way to understand the discourses of oil and climate change in the Newfoundland and Labrador context, as there is something of a fundamental disjuncture between the two.

indy2Going back to the focus date of April 14th, 2015, for a moment, the province’s only alternative media outlet, the Newfoundland and Labrador Independent, took a different approach than the mainstream press in its presentation of the premier’s attendance of the climate summit. [Full disclosure: I write a regular column for the Independent.] On April 14th, the Independent featured an article co-authored by Memorial University sociologists Mark Stoddart and Stephanie Sodero, titled “3 Barriers to Climate Action in Newfoundland and Labrador.” In the article, Sodero and Stoddart outline the conflicting attitudes of the provincial government with regard to extractive industries and climate change, noting, “This type of policy contradiction, especially in the realm of climate and resource politics, happens so regularly as to be almost unremarkable. What we are interested in, as environmental sociologists, is how such contradictory projects are legitimized and take on the appearance of common sense.” This article first caught my attention as it is expressing a view similar to my own with respect to provincial policies, and clearly illustrates the hypocrisy of the government’s attitude toward climate change and resource extraction in a public medium, albeit a media outlet that does not reach the same broad audience as the mainstream press. Nonetheless, it shows that discourses on oil and climate change in the province are contested and at odds, certainly not monolithic, something like a rupture that calls to be noticed and in some way addressed.

Drawing on the work of Kari Norgaard, Sodero and Stoddart go on to suggest that any dissonance between such apparently contradictory attitudes is overcome through “cultural myths that allow society to collectively bury its head in the sand and evade its full environmental responsibilities.” And, indeed, it does seem that a skillful feat of mental gymnastics is required for the public to make peace with these contradictions. Though beyond the question of the public’s dissonance is also an issue of power, since competing discourses of resource extraction and climate change are not necessarily on a level playing field. For example, Teun Van Dijk, in his article “Structures of Discourse and Structures of Power,” notes that “Power is directly exercised and expressed through differential access to various genres, contents, and styles of discourse” (22). He continues:

The voice of the elite [by which he means elected officials, media personalities, academics, and other representatives of institutions] is often the voice of the corporate or institutional master. The interests and ideologies of the elites are usually not fundamentally different from those who pay or support them. Only a few groups (e.g., novelists and some academics) have the possibility to exercise counterpower, which still must be expressed within the constraints of publication. The dependence of the elite is typically ideologically concealed by various professional norms, values, or codes, for instance, by the widespread belief in “freedom of expression” in the mass media. (23)

I count myself lucky to work with and know a number of such academics, artists, and journalists who attempt to exercise what Van Dijk calls discursive counterpower, even as it is a practice fraught with pitfalls and risks. As the current discussion of oil and climate change involves some of the largest corporations on the planet, it is worth wondering whether there is an imbalance of discursive power, in terms of access to (or ownership of) media and the distribution of statements into the public sphere.

cecOne example of an initiative sponsored by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) helps to illustrate this point. CAPP employed a marketing company to create a campaign called “Canada’s Energy Citizens.” The purpose of the campaign is to encourage Canadians to speak up on behalf of the oil industry against its detractors in everyday situations. The campaign includes videos and audio recordings modeling conversations that may happen around a dinner table, or on a casual night out with friends, when issues such as climate change may happen to come up. Campaign materials include a number of talking points and “factoids” about the Canadian oil and gas industry that are easily repeatable, that emphasize the centrality of the industry to the economic wellbeing of the country, and that highlight the use of petroleum in a vast number of consumer products people may take for granted. Along with its online presence, representatives of the campaign went on a cross-Canada media tour to promote the “movement,” including radio spots broadcast in Newfoundland and Labrador.

This style of public relations campaign draws on similar work conducted by large American firms representing the Kato Institute and other such “libertarian” think tanks, though without the blatant climate change denial or absurdist “end of days” theology. The point, however, is that the oil and gas industry is keen to present a particular set of statements and discursive practices intended to manage or mitigate what might be called the counterpower or counter-discourse of climate change and environmentalism. Specifically with respect to Newfoundland and Labrador, a provincial-based industry association, the Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Industries Association (NOIA), carries on similar sorts of PR exercises, such as the annual NL Oil and Gas Week. [The last NL Oil and Gas Week included a cash prize for junior high school teachers who encouraged students to pursue jobs in the industry, etc.]

wellsTo be clear, PR campaigns like Canada’s Energy Citizens and NOIA’s Oil and Gas Week are not explicitly denying climate change. Instead, the basic rhetorical strategy is to subvert or to muddy the waters. However, there are still fervent climate change deniers, and some of them hold prominent positions in governments and public institutions. One example of this in the Newfoundland and Labrador context is the former mayor of St. John’s and current chair of the province’s Public Utilities Board, Andy Wells (see Wells’ letter to the editor here). This is precisely the sort of “elite” Van Dijk is referring to, in that he is well known throughout the province and is in a position to sway or influence public opinion. It should be pointed out that the Public Utilities Board is the agency whose task it is to regulate petroleum markets in the province and to oversee the province’s energy regime, including any potential move to renewable energy (i.e. for the narrative of displacing responsibility for climate action to “consumer demand”). Wells has a long history with the oil industry, and in 2006 established a lobby group called Friends of Gas Onshore, which was funded by a group called North Atlantic Pipeline Partners. The point here, once again, is that public discourses on oil and climate change are shaped by and reflective of the interests of corporate power, and so the public arena is not necessarily a level playing field in which competing claims can be evaluated solely on their merits.

Through the exercise of discursive power, and through many other mechanisms of power and control, the importance and necessity of the oil industry is continuously sold to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is important for industry that the public relations effort is proactive, as it allows government to make statements that sound legitimate to the public, even if they are inherently contradictory. Shortly after this focus date of April 14th, Independent journalist Justin Brake conducted an interview with the province’s premier Paul Davis specifically on the issue of climate change and oil. Responding to a pointed question on contradictory policies the premier said:

indyClimate change today is costing us, because we do have warmer weather, stormier weather, and wetter weather. So we’re seeing all of that and we’ve endured the impacts of that as a province. So it is costing us now, and it’s important that we do make investments. At the same time, we have [resources] that are being sought out around the world, so we have a responsibility to be in oil.

This statement is, in many ways, a perfect example of the contradictory discourses on oil and climate change in the province. On the one hand, it clearly expresses the knowledge that climate change is happening and that it is having real effects on the province, on infrastructure, on the economy. Yet in the same breath the premier is able to reaffirm the necessity of oil for the province, as though he had not just a moment before recognized the danger of anthropogenic climate change.

To conclude, it is interesting to note the degree to which the oil industry and government must manipulate the public discussion in order to legitimize resource developments in the Arctic and in the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore. Attempts by industry to manage the discourse on climate change range from the subtle to the absurd, but generally such attempts share the characteristic of being a mobilization of discursive power for productive ends. A few of the eidetics of such a discourse noted here might include “the narrative of (ir)responsibility,” such as the statement from Premier Paul Davis; “the narrative of diversion,” such as the Canada’s Energy Citizen’s campaign; and the “narrative of denial,” typified by Andy Wells. Opposed to these, as a form of counterpower, are narratives based on positivism and hard science, such as the numerous reports from the IPCC and from climatologists in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as narratives of loss, such as in the example of studies of climate change and Labrador Inuit. The contradictory provincial policies on resource development and climate change are basically unresolvable, which points to the importance of targeted discursive interventions for those who set out to oppose or raise awareness of anthropogenic climate change.10265428_10152736668040866_9152439044831492560_o

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