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Local leaders critical of American ad campaign

The American ad campaign calling for a boycott of Alberta has earned the ire of both politicians and industry locally.
Keith Chiasson, Imperial’s Cold Lake operations manager, provides information to Laura Lochman, United States Consul General, on Imperial’s cyclic steam
Keith Chiasson, Imperial’s Cold Lake operations manager, provides information to Laura Lochman, United States Consul General, on Imperial’s cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) process in May. Pictured from left to right: Daniel Fennell, United States Consul Laura Lochman, Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland, and Keith Chiasson, Cold Lake operations manager.

The American ad campaign calling for a boycott of Alberta has earned the ire of both politicians and industry locally. The campaign called “Rethink Alberta” urges Americans to pledge to stop the “tar sands” by not visiting the province until the government moves away from oilsands development.

“For them to compare the tar sands in Fort McMurray to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a little ludicrous,” said Bonnyville Mayor Ernie Isley.

Isley recently toured Imperial Oil Resources facilities north of Ardmore, where cyclic steam stimulation is the method used to extract oilsands. “Heavy oil up here leaves very little environmental footprint,” he said, adding that the Rethink Alberta campaign misrepresents all oilsands development as mined. “Mining is only one component of it anymore.”

However he speculated that the campaign could have some affect in dissuading American tourists from spending their vacation dollars in Alberta.

Mayor of the City of Cold Lake Craig Copeland said he would like to see the province do more to improve the image of Alberta south of the border. “I think the province has been late to the dance in fighting the negative news out of the oilsands itself.”

He said for the province to win the publicity campaign it would need to fight it aggressively. “Until we fight fire with fire we're just going to be taken advantage of.” He added that he thinks the province needs to hire the right public relations firm to put together an effective campaign and that bureaucrats may not be the best counter to the campaign.

“I think it's in the best interest of the province to invest some serious money,” he said, adding that Eastern Canada has also had negative publicity around Alberta's oilsands. “Having a bunch of MLAs and ministers run around the United States and say great things about our oilsands, that's just a half-hearted effort.”

Local business owner Mike Kruesel said he thought while the campaign might succeed in affecting the opinion of some tree huggers, it wouldn't stop the average tourists from visiting Alberta. Kruesel operates A-Ok Shoes & Key Men's Apparel on 50th Avenue in Bonnyville and also sits on the board of directors with the Bonnyville and District Chamber of Commerce.

“The dollars dictate more than some campaign about ‘don't go to Alberta, it's the next disaster to happen.' People aren't going to buy into it,” he said. However, he added that he's not happy to see the negative publicity for the province.

While he gets some traffic from Americans and tourists passing through the area, he estimated 90 per cent of his business comes from the surrounding area. Retirees and vacationers are unlikely to be persuaded by the negative ad campaign, he said.

“I don't think people are that stupid,” Reeve Ed Rondeau said. “Some small group of people is jumping up and down and trying to do something with this. Do I think that it's going to keep people from coming here? No, I really don't. The opposite is going to happen, it's going to raise awareness for Alberta.”

He noted that the United States is buying a large portion of Alberta's heavy oil.

“We look at that campaign and we see a lot of outright lies in it,” said Rhona DelFrari, spokeswoman for Cenovus Energy, which operates the Foster Creek steam assisted gravity drainage oilsands facility on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.

“We find it frustrating when groups like this create a sensational campaign that's not based on fact,” DelFrari said. “The facts aren't always as interesting as the sensationalism.” She said the best response for industry is to counter the ad campaign with accurate information about oilsands development.

“From our point of view, it's really about how do you sit down, have a discussion, and find solutions, whether its footprint or emissions or environmental performance or community investment?” said Nadine Barber, spokeswoman for Devon Canada. Devon produces heavy oil in the Lakeland region.

“I think they need to give Americans a little bit more credit for wanting stable secure energy at a reasonable cost,” she said. She said while the campaign gained a lot of media attention, it wouldn't likely affect anything.

“Alberta's a fabulous place. Why wouldn't you want to go to Bonnyville?” asked Barber. “Those billboards would have to run for a very, very long time in a lot of different markets to have any kind of measurable impact. Even then, its just billboards.”

Don Boynton, a spokesman from Travel Alberta, said Rethink Alberta is not the first attempted boycott of Alberta he's seen. “We've never seen any kind of evidence of those kinds of campaigns working…We are not changing our strategy to our largest international market, the United States. We're going to continue to invite people to come experience Alberta first-hand, one of the most beautiful destinations in the world.”