A Media Critique of Coverage on the Keystone XL Pipeline – Are Canadians and Americans Being Told all the Facts?

Tar Sands Action. Photo-by-Shadia-Fayne.
Tar Sands Action. Photo-by-Shadia-Fayne.
In developing countries, where issues of environment, human rights, jobs, politics and corporations collide, conflict is sure to follow.
Tar Sands Action. Photo-by-Shadia-Fayne.
Tar Sands Action. Photo-by-Shadia-Fayne.
In developing countries, where issues of environment, human rights, jobs, politics and corporations collide, conflict is sure to follow.  As typical North American suburbanite citizens, we tend to see such conflict as a problem of distant have-not countries.  We are, after all, the creators and supporters of corporations in the western hemisphere who over the past several decades have made it our job to spread our commerce around the globe for economic survival.  But for the last 39 months a pot of such conflict has been brewing in our own back yard.  The energy sector has single handedly attempted to shape the North American energy policy at the justification of jobs, self sustainability and profits – and at the expense of public health and natural resources.  The Keystone XL Pipeline is cylindrical. There is no one side to its controversy and the media coverage has proven just how slippery the issue of oil –in its most rudimentary form, can be.  The following is a critique of the online media coverage at the heart of the controversial period (from November 3 to November 12, 2011) of the Keystone XL Pipeline as reported in the mainstream media outlets of the Globe and Mail, and Washington Post – and Rabble.ca as a representation of alternative media.

Background:

The Keystone XL Pipeline is an infrastructure project of TransCanada Corp. with the goal of transporting bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands to the southern coast of the United States to be refined into oil.  This was a project that had been approved by the Canadian authorities well in advance of any controversy overspill.  With only the Department of State approval required on the U.S. side, Stephen Harper prematurely called the decision a “no-brainer” and as such TransCanada Corp. signed contracts with carriers, and began laying miles of pipeline in anticipation of a quick start to the project’s construction phase.

The economy of the United States has been under a tremendous amount of pressure as of late with a national unemployment rate of 9 percent and a bleak looking economy in the foreseeable future.  The proponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline have been dangling their carrot of employment – with promises that their project could mean up to 20,000 new jobs for the U.S. – a controversial figure in itself, as non-supporters say that realistically the figure of newly created jobs would be 5,000 to 6,000 at most over a short term period of two years.

Part of the pipeline’s trail includes traversing through the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska and over part of the Ogallala aquifer, an important source of water spanning eight states including South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.  This already strained aquifer is responsible for supplying drinking water to approximately 82 percent of those living within the aquifer limits and supplies farmers with nearly 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation. (USGS, US Geological Survey).  But this is only one reason why environmentalists are upset.  The larger reason is that if the Keystone Pipeline goes through, production of the tar sands will increase dramatically, making it impossible for Canada to meet any kind of standards required to slow down climate change.

 

First Nations people speaking against Keystone XL Pipeline. Photoy by Shadia Fayne. Courtesy of Tar and Sands Action.

The Dene, Canada’s First Nations people residing near the Athabasca basin have already sustained hardship through the production of the tar sands.  An expansion of production made possible through the new pipeline would further strain this hardship. In a media release dated September 27th, 2011, Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus stated, “Toxic tailings ponds already cover hundreds of square kilometers, and are growing by the minute. Millions of litres of contaminated water leak each day from these tailings ponds into groundwater and tributaries in the Athabasca River watershed. These waters flow through Denendeh, from northern Alberta to the Arctic Ocean, and any pollution in the water impacts our communities. This is one of our main concerns about tar sands development.” (Dene Nation, 2011)

Not only does the Keystone XL put the environmentally sensitive land of Nebraska and the people dependent upon it at risk should the project move forward – there are other risks involved if it doesn’t.  If the Keystone XL pipeline does not go through, people of the oil industry have indeed been creating a back up plan.  Top of the list is the Enbridge Gateway pipeline which plans to take the same bitumen from Bruderheim, Alberta, through the mountains to Kitimat, British Columbia where it will then get shipped to refineries in Asia.

The Coastal First Nations people are among the many of the developing communities within Canada who already face multiple challenges like housing and unemployment among a host of social issues.  This is a collection of First Nations’ communities that rely on the land as a source of food and more so on the fresh water of the west coast for fishing.  The oil industry of Alberta’s ‘Plan B’ is in direct conflict with the Coastal First Nations people’s way of life.  In a media release dated November 15th, 2011, Executive Director of the Coastal First Nations people states, “We will do everything in our power to protect our coast from Enbridge’s risky pipeline and tankers proposal. It’s a future Coastal First Nations cannot imagine. It’s a future we won’t allow to become reality.  Last year, on March 23, 2010, the Coastal First Nations issued a declaration banning tankers carrying tar sands crude oil from their traditional lands and waters, a ban they have vowed to defend “by whatever means necessary.  Our people are fishing people. We thrive despite high unemployment because we have access to traditional foods like wild salmon, halibut and shellfish. Why would we allow a pipeline that would help destroy our most important food sources?” (Sterrit, 2011)

Assuredly the issue of the Keystone XL Pipeline is indeed complex and even if stopped, the plight of the oil industry continues.  Politicians on both the U.S. and Canadian sides have done little to direct an energy policy that could help bring these conflicts to an end by outlining a clear plan for North America’s energy creating a framework – boundaries and rules for industry to work within.  Let’s see how well the media do in communicating and representing these complex issues.

Methodology:

To ensure that the media coverage critique was not an “apples to oranges” model of comparison, coverage under review was limited to the online portions of the three media representations.  This was done because the mainstream media of the Globe and Mail and Washington Post, had the advantage of being a physical newspaper as well as online media, which would skew coverage comparison to Rabble’s online-only alternative media.  Coverage on the Keystone XL Pipeline project was followed from November 3 to November 12th, 2011 with a matrix identifying what was covered in the article with the following subject identifiers: First Nations; Organizing/Protesters; Oil Industry; Landowners; Politics; Jobs; and Environment.  Other identifiers were: date of publication; the section of the site that the article was posted in; if applicable, the city the article is being reported from; who wrote the article; and the images or video postings included in the coverage.  The data is then analyzed taking all of the above into consideration to uncover patterns of coverage and reporting for each of the three media.

Globe and Mail

Quantitative Analysis at a Glance

Publication

Total Number of Articles

Male

Female

First Nations

Organizing / Protesters

Oil Industry

Landowners

Politics

Jobs

Environment

Globe and Mail

19

15

7

3

4

16

5

14

9

8

Note: Some articles had both male and female authors which is why the number of male/female authors are greater than the number of articles written.

Qualitative Analysis

With the Globe and Mail what becomes immediately apparent is that the origin of the author and location have a profound affect on the tone of the article or blog being analyzed.  One writer in particular, Nathan Vanderclippe, authors or co-authors 6 of the total 19 articles either from Calgary or Ottawa.  All of these articles are critical of the environmental movement, the Obama Administration, and sympathetic to the oil industries.  Of the six articles, all touched on politics, the oil industry and jobs in that order, with quotes from the likes of crude oil and natural gas producer, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., and Rick George of Suncor. His sympathetic viewpoints align with the article placements on the site.  All of his articles are either under “Investing” or “Industry News > Energy & Resources.”

There is little to no mention about why protestors are so passionate about keeping the Keystone XL Pipeline from going in the ground.  And only 3 articles mention First Nations people and only in passing.  Rather, the articles reflect threats of where the industry will set its sights on next, should the project be stopped.

“Pipeline supporters have warned that the loss of the Keystone project will force Canada to turn to Asian, notably Chinese, markets. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver – who has lobbied aggressively to win American support for the project – travels to China this week. The minister will attend a mining conference there, but will also meet with senior Chinese government officials and company executives from the energy sector.” (Vanderclip, 2011).

The summation of the Keystone XL coverage in the Globe and Mail, inclusive of all articles and authors, places the emphasis through its media coverage, on the oil industry, politics and jobs in that order.  This could also be related to the fact that nearly 70 percent of the writers are male.  It’s also important to note that 13 of the 19 articles are being reported on from either a business or investment point of view and reside in those sections of the paper online.  Certainly this reflects the stance on the subject matter by the Globe and Mail as a whole.  Overall, to the Globe and Mail, this is a business versus politics issue, with little regard for the other players affected.

Washington Post

Quantitative Analysis at a Glance

Publication

Total Number of Articles

Male

Female

First Nations

Organizing / Protesters

Oil Industry

Landowners

Politics

Jobs

Environment

Washington Post

16

10

5

0

8

10

4

12

6

12

Note: One of the articles was written by the ‘Editorial Board’ – hence could neither be established as male or female, which is why there are 16 articles and only 15 authors represented in this analysis.

Qualitative Analysis

When reviewing the coverage in the Washington Post, one of the first things that stands out is the lack of coverage on the First Nations people.  It occurred to me that if media were properly covering how such a project would affect the people of the United States, that they would research how it has already affected those dealing with the effects of the tar sands now – especially at the expense of a bitumen leak.

That being said, there appeared to be slightly more balance in the reporting of the Washington Post, however.  The emphasis on environment and politics were equal in coverage followed by the oil industry.  There was also a lot of discussion in the articles about the actual organizing of protesters.  This makes sense in comparison to the coverage of the Globe and Mail since the gathering of protesters was deployed in the nation’s capital as opposed to in Canada despite the show of a great number of Canadians in Washington.  Yet again, there was evidence of a change in tone according to what section an article appeared in.  Clearly those in the economy section focused on the jobs that would be lost if Keystone didn’t pull through – as well as on how much money has already been invested in the project to date.  Environmentalists were mentioned often enough but were portrayed as only a blockade to jobs and progress.  One video posted on November 10th in the Economy section by the Associated Press, showed an interview with TransCanada Corp’s CEO Russ Girling who blamed protesters for steering away 20,000 jobs.  There was no protester representation and no discussion as to what the protests were about.  The accuracy of the 20,000 jobs figure was also never called into question.  As Girling talked about the money spent to date, no one was critical as to why TransCanada Corp. started spending money on pre-construction costs prior to any official approval from the State Department.  It was as if they had already known it was going to be approved – as though they were given an under-the-table green light.

And now for the balance.  On November 8th, 2011, the Washington Post wrote an article pointing out the conflict of interest in the original approval process of the pipeline construction.  “Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica, whose organization used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain e-mails between a TransCanada lobbyist and officials at State, called the pipeline review “a sham, corrupted by bias, lobbyist influence and conflicts of interest. It should be obvious to the White House that it would be wholly inappropriate to continue moving forward with this rigged process” (Mufson, 2011).  This was never mentioned in the Globe and Mail coverage.  And on November 11th, there appeared a clever blog post by Rachel Weiner, which talked about how the protesters were actually made up of people with different beliefs, but a common enemy. “Environmentalists oppose the project because of the energy-intensive, pollution-creating oil extraction. Conservatives and tea party activists are worried about the use of eminent domain, or the government’s ability to take private property, to build a pipeline for a foreign company. And both sides are concerned about oil leaking into aquifers that supply Texas and the Plains states” (Weiner, 2011).  One blog post by Elizabeth Flock spoke of how both sides of the debate used the term ‘Occupy Obama’ during the protest campaign.  First belonging to the protesters, the Republican National Committee started a social media campaign using the exact same term in effort to try and confuse people.  This was a good attempt by the media to show the public just how gullible Keystone XL proponents think they are.

Rabble.ca

Quantitative Analysis at a Glance

Publication

Total Number of Articles

Male

Female

First Nations

Organizing / Protesters

Oil Industry

Landowners

Politics

Jobs

Environment

Rabble.ca

10

4

6

2

9

2

1

9

3

9

Qualitative Analysis

Rabble’s focus was equal in three areas – organizing of protesters, politics and environment.  For Rabble, it is just as important to ask the questions about who is deciding on energy policy, as it is to tell people why the tar sands are a bad idea.  They more deeply explored the conflict of interest that was existing at the State Department for Keystone XL approval, and a great deal of their focus was on the subject of ‘organizing’ itself.  Of course many of the bloggers were industry people in their own right, as opposed to journalists.  Written columns and blogs were more based on opinion and few contained any interviews from proponents of the Keystone Pipeline.  Much more coverage of the plight of the First Nations people was expected to no avail.  There was one mention in passing and a 2nd mention in an article posted by Maude Barlow, “I told them about the harm done to the First Nations communities that live downstream from the tar sands. I told them what might happen if there are spills along the route as we have already seen 14 serious spills in the first phase of the project.” (Barlow, 2011).

Careful considerations, however, were taken to explore what went wrong with the Keystone Pipeline process, specifically with columnist Fred Wilson, “Here is the no-brainer that Stephen Harper should have figured out. If your product is seen as a global environmental nightmare, and if your failure to demonstrate that it is produced in a sustainable framework creates nothing but controversy for your only major customer, having some oil left in the ground is the least of your problems.” (Wilson, 2011). Wilson is a labour and NGO activist based in Ottawa as well as the Assistant to the President of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union.

Summary

Out of a total of 45 articles written on the subject, it was disappointing to see so little coverage (5 articles in total) on the First Nations people, as I fear they are a collective community who will be facing the brunt of what is to happen with the Alberta tar sands in the future.  Much of the success of the demonstrations that took place in Washington can be attributed to the media coverage of the protesters during a pre-election season – with a President who is well aware of the organizing power of the same group of young activists that helped make his 2008 campaign a success.  The First Nations people of Canada do not have this advantage.  They did not make up the election base for Stephen Harper, and with 3+ years left to go in a majority government, it is unlikely the Harper administration will do anything to defend those developing communities who stand in the way of the tar sands’ expansion and the prospects of future exports.

Late last year (December 2011), the State Department had requested an alternate route for the Keystone XL Pipeline – a decision that made environmentalists giddy and proud of their organizing and protesting efforts. However, as this topic continues to be part of the ongoing political debate – fueling a heated jobs-related election issue, no resolve is final.  Currently Nebraska lawmakers are scheduled for a final vote on a bill this Wednesday which would allow the State Department of Environmental Quality to resume its review of the proposed crude-oil pipeline as it stands.

Nothing is final – until it’s final.

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