Alberta drafts Capitol Hill operatives as it seeks support for Keystone XL, trade issues

Alberta’s United Conservative government is hiring influential Capitol Hill lobbyists and communications experts as it seeks to win support in Washington, D.C., for the Keystone XL pipeline and other trade interests south of the border.

CBC News has identified three firms the province has hired in the United States capital in recent months, including Crossroads Strategies, which bills itself as “one of a handful of elite government affairs firms in the nation’s capital.”

One of the firm’s top officials is John Breaux Sr., a Democrat who worked with Biden in the Senate for nearly two decades. Its one-year contract with the Alberta government is worth up to $350,000 US.

In total, the province has committed up to $1.1 million between the three firms so far.

“The hiring of these firms is part of our critical engagements with the Biden administration and lawmakers as the transition process continues and the new administration assumes office,” said Justin Brattinga, press secretary for Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office on Jan. 20. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

“They each have their own specialties and areas of expertise. This includes ensuring economic recovery following the pandemic and borders reopening; as well as lobbying for the Keystone XL pipeline, which is essential to North America’s energy security and getting Alberta’s products to market.”

Details of the agreements come as Washington, D.C., is poised for a political sea change that will soon see the Democratic party take control of both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as the White House.

The change poses a big challenge for at least one major project on Alberta’s books: the Keystone XL pipeline project. The province invested $1.5 billion in the TC Energy project last year, and promised another $6 billion in loan guarantees.

Incoming president Joe Biden has said he’ll cancel a key permit granted by the Trump administration for the Alberta-to-Nebraska pipeline, sticking a pin in a project that environmentalists say is a threat to the fight against climate change. 

Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, said spending the money on lobbying for Keystone XL is like “throwing good money after bad.”

Anyone who thinks Biden’s going to backtrack on Keystone is deluding themselves,” Stewart said.  

If you keep pushing this … you’re also sending a message that you don’t understand the new reality.” 

One of the key issues for Alberta in Washington, D.C., will be pushing for the Keystone XL pipeline. Greenpeace Canada says lobbying for the project will be like ‘throwing good money after bad.’ (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

He also pointed to news this week that an Alberta government public inquiry into alleged foreign-funded anti-energy campaigns has posted commissioned studies that experts say are based on junk climate-denial science.

“It’s time to recognize that the energy reality is changing,” Stewart added. “Alberta can thrive in that new environment, but not if they keep trying to push the projects of 20 years ago.”

Keystone XL isn’t the only issue the province hopes to make inroads on.

Other U.S. registry documents show key areas for the province include environmental policy, trade issues including food and agriculture, as well as “investment issues.”

To that end, the provincial government is paying Crestview Strategy $30,000 US a month for at least six months to help provincial representatives connect with U.S. legislators. 

“You have asked us to assist you with securing meetings with key Members of Congress and their senior officials over the next three months to start,” according to an Oct. 1 letter from Crestview to James Rajotte, Alberta’s senior representative to the United States.

Public affairs firm JDA Frontline, also based in Washington, D.C., has been hired on a $50,000 US monthly contract to do work that includes opinion research, advertising and content creation, as well as provide media and government relations services.

The contract, worth $300,000 US, is due to expire at the end of May. The bill also includes opinion research worth an additional $40,000 US.

Carlo Dade, an expert on trade at the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based public policy think tank, said having that presence in Washington right now is something the province needs to invest in.

But he noted Alberta will be competing in a crowded field, with others spending more money to push for issues and an incoming administration that “is going to have a queue out the door.”

Dade said the province should also be striving to build its relationships with state governments south of the border, like British Columbia has done with in the Pacific Northwest.

“There’s a whole other investment that we need to be making, and that’s with governors,” he said. “You want people that are going to help you.”

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