Manchin visits Alberta as Canada Ramps Up US Lobbying Amid Energy Crisis

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) visited Alberta, Canada, this week and met with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to discuss North American energy security in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The visit came as the oil-rich province has quickly expanded its U.S. outreach in an effort to advance Alberta’s energy and trade interests in America, according to documents filed with the U.S. Justice Department.

In recent weeks, the Alberta government retained at least two firms in Washington to assist in “strategic communications,” “message testing” and “direct advocacy with the United States Congress,” documents show. The Canadian Energy Centre, a government-funded corporation that promotes and defends Alberta’s fossil fuel industry, also recently hired an ad agency to spearhead media campaigns in the U.S.

The disclosures, required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, shed light on Alberta’s efforts to influence U.S. policy as the American government grapples with near-record high gas prices, inflation, climate change and conflict in eastern Europe. Since war broke out in Ukraine, Kenney has repeatedly urged the U.S. to import more oil from Alberta, home to the world’s fourth-largest proven oil reserves.

Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, supports an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy policy that leverages renewables, as well as fossil fuels, to drive down energy costs. He too has pushed for increasing Canadian oil and gas imports.

But some climate and security experts say the best way to deal with both rising energy costs and Russian aggression is to wean off fossil fuels. Anthony Swift, Canada program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, told OpenSecrets countries should seize this opportunity to accelerate a transition from an oil market.

“I think that efforts to phase out combustion engines to support the electrification of our vehicle fleet will do far more to reduce our dependence on, you know — on oil from Russia and other petro-states, than really doubling down on oil production,” Swift said.

Manchin, who profits from his family’s West Virginia coal company, received more campaign donations from the oil, coal and gas industries than any other senator in the current election cycle.

The debate over how to best deal with rising energy costs comes as a recent report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the window to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is rapidly closing. The global average temperature is projected to rise further unless greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2025. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres — who has said that increased use of fossil fuels in response to Russia’s aggression risks jeopardizing climate goals — called on countries to accelerate their shift to renewable energy.

One firm hired by the Alberta government touted its access to U.S. lawmakers, including Manchin. The firm, Crestview Strategy, recently signed a 2-year contract with the provincial government worth one million Canadian dollars — equivalent to about $791,000 in U.S. currency — and partnered with the lobbying powerhouse Capitol Counsel earlier this year to further Alberta’s outreach in Congress, foreign lobbying disclosures show. In a letter hyping Capitol Counsel’s government connections, Crestview Strategy partner and U.S. managing director Maryscott Greenwood singled out Jonathan Kott, a former adviser to Manchin and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). Kott joined Capitol Counsel in 2021 after more than a decade in government, including seven years in Manchin’s Senate office.

Greenwood herself is a former diplomat and serves as CEO of the Canadian-American Business Council. The council’s members include the Association of Oil Pipe Lines as well as oil and gas giants ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Enbridge, Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil.

In March, Alberta’s government also signed a two-year, CA$2 million contract with JDA Frontline Partners, led by the longtime lobbyist and former communications director for the Republican National Committee, Trevor Francis. While the firm retained its name in paperwork filed with the Justice Department, JDA Frontline Partners rebranded as Seven Letter in 2019, after it merged with Blue Engine Message & Media.

While the firms were hired to advance the government’s interests on a range of issues, energy remains front-and-center. JDA Frontline Partner’s media strategy revolves almost entirely around positioning the Alberta oil and gas industry as a secure, reliable and environmentally responsible energy supplier, documents show.

The two firms also previously lobbied for the now-canceled Keystone XL pipeline, which, if completed, would have transported 830,000 barrels of Alberta oil daily to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. It was championed by the Alberta government but bitterly opposed by indigenous communities and environmental groups.

JDA Frontline Partner conducted a national poll which showed public support for the project. A day before President Joe Biden pulled a key permit preventing the pipeline from being built in the U.S., Crestview Strategy and Crossroad Strategy, another consulting firm hired by the Canadian government in 2021, shared the results of the survey with media and congressional aides, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) chief of staff, documents show. JDA Frontline Partners also booked interviews for Kenney with Fox News and MSNBC.

TC Energy, the Canadian company behind Keystone XL, abandoned the project last summer. But policymakers in the U.S. and Alberta appear intent on keeping some version of the pipeline alive. Kenney, whose government is suing the U.S. to recoup CA$1.3 billion it lost in the project, told CTV News in March that Alberta would consider taking on the project if given assurances by the American government the pipeline would be completed. A bill introduced by Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), a member of the House Energy Committee, aims to do just that.

The Alberta government did not answer specific questions about its contracts with Crestview Strategy or JDA Frontline Partners. In a statement to OpenSecrets, it said, “The United States is Alberta’s largest trading partner and export market. We have deeply integrated relationships in energy, agriculture, and technology, and connections across many other sectors. Ensuring Alberta’s interests are well represented in the United States is not only important — it’s essential.”

Canadian oil and gas industry interests’ U.S. advertising on the rise

Another group pushing Alberta’s oil and gas interests is the Canadian Energy Centre, a publicly-funded corporation established by Alberta’s United Conservative Party government in 2019. Kenney formed the center to counter what he called misinformation about the province’s lucrative but embattled industry, the subject of frequent criticism for its record on indigenous and environmental issues. The so-called “energy war room” is overseen by three provincial cabinet ministers who make up its board of directors. Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage — a former Enbridge lobbyist — serves as board chair.

In March, the Canadian Energy Centre launched a print and digital ad campaign that seized the war in Ukraine to urge Americans to “look north” for their energy needs.

“Russia changed the global energy conversation,” an ad in The Washington Post paid for by the center read. “If not Canada, who are you entrusting your energy security to?”

The campaign’s CA$1.7 million price-tag reflects the Canadian Energy Centre’s dramatic increase in spending on advertising in the U.S. The center’s first and only other campaign targeting Americans, a series of billboard ads in New York and Washington last year, cost CA$240,000. Tom Olsen, CEO and managing director of the center, told OpenSecrets about one-third of its CA$12 million budget this year will go toward U.S. outreach. The ad agency DDB Canada, a subsidiary of advertising and public relations giant Omnicom Group, is on retainer through at least March 31, federal disclosures show.

Olsen told OpenSecrets by email that the war in eastern Europe has underscored the “folly” of Western energy policy.

“Energy transition takes time. It can’t be accomplished overnight,” he said. “At the CEC we want to promote a realistic conversation about the energy mix as we move towards a lower carbon future.”

But Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council said expanding Canada’s oil and gas production and export capacity will also take time, which he believes could be better spent building out Canada’s green energy infrastructure.

“The idea that it’s going to take longer to deploy alternative clean energy technologies than it will to expand, you know, tar sands production is … simply false,” he said. “Over the next eight years, we can generate an enormous reduction in our oil use through the deployment of clean energy technologies.”

Swift also rejected Alberta’s argument that countries should import Canada’s “ethical oil” as an alternative to oil from countries where profits may be used to “fund terrorism, violence and global instability.”

“Given the consequence of climate change that we’re already seeing,” Swift said, “I think it’s hard to describe oil at this point as ethical, produced anywhere.”

Alberta may soon be able to make its case for increased production directly to Congress. At a joint press conference capping his visit to the province, Manchin said he intends to invite Kenney and a delegation from Alberta to testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to tell the American people “what you do, how you do it, and how well you do it.”

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