Groups linked to oil companies funded Facebook ads denouncing the rail blockades

Oil and gas companies, and groups linked to them, have been spending big on Facebook ads that denounce the First Nations-led protests that have targetted rail transport in Canada in the past month.

These groups, some of which position themselves as grassroots movements, have spent an estimated $110,000 since the start of the year on Facebook advertising — either to promote the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline at the heart of the protests or to oppose the rail blockades as illegal. A CBC News analysis found these ads were shown to Facebook users about 20 million times.

CBC News looked at hundreds of Facebook ads since the start of the year that focus on the protests and rail blockades, which were launched by Wet’suwet’en activists and their supporters opposed to construction of the pipeline.

The group Canada Action has been one of the biggest spenders; it spent an estimated $21,000 on Facebook ads, most of them decrying the blockades by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters.

The group Proud to Be Canadian, part of the Canada Strong and Proud network of third-party groups, spent an estimated $4,400 on the ads, according to data obtained from the Facebook political ad library.

While the groups position themselves as grassroots campaigns in their marketing, they have ties to energy companies and conservative-leaning political groups.

Ads in support of the protests, mostly purchased by small activist groups, were viewed about 350,000 times by Facebook users. These groups collectively spent about $3,000 on the ads.

Another big buyer of ads opposing the blockades is Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole. His campaign ran 30 ads, in both languages, at an estimated cost of $14,000. Other leadership candidates, including Peter MacKay, Rick Peterson and Marilyn Gladu, also ran ads pushing their opposition to the protests.

Coastal GasLink behind half of ad buys

The most prolific online advertiser on the pipeline project, by far, is Coastal GasLink itself, which is building the 670-kilometre pipeline that will connect wells in British Columbia to the coast. It has run 80 ads since the start of the year — almost a quarter of all the ads in the data obtained by CBC. It spent roughly $50,000 on ads citing Indigenous support for the pipeline — almost half of all the money spent on Facebook ads about the project and the blockades.

But in other cases, it’s not always clear when an entity running online ads about the pipeline or the protests is funded or otherwise supported by the oil and gas industry.

Canada’s Energy Citizens is a Facebook page that bills itself “a movement of Canadians who support Canada’s oil and natural gas industry.” It’s run by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP); the ads the page ran mentioned that they were paid for by CAPP.

The second biggest online spender was Canada Action, a group founded by Calgary realtor Cody Battershill in 2014. As with Coastal GasLink’s ads, Canada Action’s ads focus on the Wet’suwet’en members who want the pipeline built.

Though it describes itself as a grassroots organization, the group — known for its “I love Canadian Gas & Oil” merchandise — has multiple ties to the energy sector.

The annual Global Petroleum Show (GPS) in Calgary listed Canada Action as a partner of the conference in 2019, alongside CAPP. Canada Action also co-organized a pro-pipeline rally in February 2019 with Canada’s Energy Citizens and other organizers. According to Maclean’s magazine, oil companies regularly order large amounts of Canada Action merchandise, and several companies purchased $2,500 sponsorships for the group’s rally during the 2019 GPS.

Lynn Exner of Canada Action said the group does accept funding from oil and gas companies, but also from mining companies, farmers, forestry companies and Indigenous groups.

“We are Canada’s only grassroots group that supports resource workers,” Exner said. “We accept funding from people who are aligned with our values, but don’t have our values mandated by funders.”

She added that Canada Action didn’t receive any funding from Coastal GasLink or LNG Canada, which is also pushing for the new pipeline.

Most of the Facebook ads against the rail blockades were run by pages with clear connections to the energy industry. (Facebook Ad Library)

The organization Debunk Inc. — which spent about $800 on two Facebook ads — describes itself as a “group of people that believe in supporting the issues that matter most to Canadians” and says it pushes back at disinformation about the oil sector in mainstream media.

Debunk Inc.’s website denies it is an oil industry-funded group, claiming it has received contributions from Canadian citizens and from various industries.

Debunk Inc was incorporated in 2017 by two marketers, Anastasia Columbos and Britni Weston. According to her LinkedIn profile, in 2013 Columbos founded the marketing agency ANPORT Communications, which lists oil and gas companies as clients. The lawyer who signed the incorporation documents, James L. Kidd, has a long history of working with oil and gas and pipeline clients, and is himself on the board of at least two energy sector companies.

CAPP, Canada Action and Debunk Inc. were all incorporated at the same law firm in Calgary — Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer.

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