How to turn a PR nightmare into a dream

Ever since the Keystone XL Pipeline (originally slated to transport Tar Sand bitumen from Alberta to Nebraska) was stalled, the attention on finding a new delivery route for this tar sand oil has focused around my own neck of the woods, British Columbia. And it seems like every time I open the paper, there's some new story about big oil PR shenanigans [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. All of this, of course, makes you wonder what a big oil PR session actually entails, and whether a memo like the fictitious one below (a.k.a. me having a little fun), is not so far from the truth...

Memo: Turning pipeline leaks into something positive!


ATTN: All executives, PR

Alright everyone, it’s time for some major spin control.  We managed to plug that pipeline up, but now we seem to be losing the public relations fight what with the freaking amount of bitumen that spilled out. Seriously, the bad press is everywhere, and we are, quite frankly, getting crucified out there. So what can we do about this?  How can we turn this PR nightmare into a PR fairytale?   

Well, we think that we’ve got an idea that can’t lose.  Let me explain.  Basically, when we thought about the idea of a PR fairytale, we thought about castles.  And when we thought about castles--stick with me here--as vanguards of the capitalist world, of course we didn’t think about real historic castles. No, we thought about pink stucco ones, like the kind you might associate with movie studios and animated versions of Cinderella.  And then (like magic, we did this all at once, I swear) we said to ourselves, “THEME PARK!”  And then we wondered, how much energy is in this leaked tar sand product anyway?  

Well, it turns out (with some very speedy back of the envelope calculations) that the amount of energy we can get from it might be good enough to explore the running of our own magic kingdom!  Well, at least if we can count on a few more leaks along the way. But how cool would that be?  Anyway, here’s the gist.  We just pull that energy from our happy accident(s), redirect it, and then run this baby! It’ll be like the leaks happened on purpose! Awesome!  

But we digress.  Let’s not bore you with talk of energy and leaks, let’s talk THEME PARK!  

Now this is just preliminary brainstorming, but we’re thinking a great name would be “Slick City!”  Nice, right?  Maybe even add to that a catchy tagline - something like The Family Friendly Pipeline Spill!  We can even have animal characters wandering around the park, with maybe some kind of funky gel-like oil in their fur and feathers so it looks all cool and shiny.  And yes, there will be a Fossil Fuel Palace, made out of glistening anthracite! I can even envision a theatre area where an oiled-down animal mascot version of the musical Grease is performed. 

Is it just me, or are people going to pay some serious coin to see that?  

And the rides: how about one called “Shutting down the science!”  You'd have these carts that go around a track, and the riders have these light guns that shoot at things for points.  For instance, they can shoot at all the nasty scientists who want to report on their work, or shoot at research centers that might be making inconvenient discoveries. Ha ha, just kidding - I’m just throwing ideas out there, but you get the picture right?

We also need a giant slide of somesort. What if we design the slide so that it followed the same curve as the hockey stick graph? And what if we call it the Carbonator or something cool like that?  

And the big ticket item? Obviously, this will be an epic rollercoaster.  Perhaps one made to look like a big old pipeline.  We could even make it from real pipeline parts!  Don’t we get discounts for those kinds of things?  As well, this ride is going to be amazing:  it’s going to be the future of log rides.  Instead of logs, the folks could sit in oil barrels, and instead of traveling through water, maybe those barrels would even go faster in a petroleum based fluid.  Extra bonus if we get to light it on fire!   

This is totally a goldmine of an opportunity. It’s like the ideas are just flowing and the theme park is creating itself!  FRIED FOOD!  Whoa. That one came out of nowhere! Seriously folks, we’ve hit oil here and it’s a gusher.



  1. If you do not want the pipline then stop driving around a lot in heavy cars and insulate your houses and keep them warm with heat pumps using non fossil electricity instead of oil.

      1. One kWh of electricity gives about 4 kWh of heat, seems ok for me. Ground source heat pumps is one of the most popular heating systems for small houses in Sweden. Oil heating has almost gone extinct and mostly been replaced with district heating systems in towns, wood pellet burners in old houses that need to keep the chimney warm for old passive ventilation systems, ground source heat pumps and of course some people use firewood.

        The first major push for getting of oil heating were done in the 1970:s and 1980:s and that were made with resistive electrical heating and lots of cheap nuclear power. Unfortunately that led to a lot of houses being built withouth a water circulation heating system and these houses are now often complemented with an air source heat pump. Air source heat pumps has less capital costs and save a lot of electricity but do not work at low air temperatures leaving the strain on the grid and do not  save any electricity when it is most expensive.

        New built small houses are almost allways built with circulating low temperature floor heating since that gives good comfort and better heat pump efficiency and it is cheap when you anyway have a concrete floor slab. It is common to either use a heat exchanger for the ventilation or a heat pump that also makes hot tap water and often also gets some of its heat from outside air or ground.

        The main political tools were oil taxation keeping the oil price high after the oil crisis in the 1970:s while nuclear power were built with low finanial cost with money flow from hydro powerplants. This was combined with raising the minium insulation standard. The insulation standard were raised agin when we had a failed attempt to get off nuclear power but it did give technology development of heat pumps and initiated that market and we also got a lot more district heating. Then came the climate issue with punitive CO2 and energy taxes on heating oil.

        The only things needed are rational planning, high oil taxes and a majority of conusmers that find it a good idea to invest in their houses with a pay.of time of 10-15 years.

        1. Well, that dog sure as hell won’t hunt roun’ these parts! Nosiree!! “Rational planning”? Tha’ don’ soun’ none to Gawd-like attal! A-and “high oil taxes”?? Youda bes’ be a-gittin as fer down that cher road quick as spit ‘fore we all have ta go git our white robes outta the chiffarobe!

    1. Reducing *my* oil usage will do very little to prevent the creation of pipelines. As an individual, I could choose to live as a hermit, with absolutely no dependence on oil at all but this would do nothing to stop oil producers from creating a pipeline to ship oil to those who consume it.

      The big problem with pipelines is that the people who are rewarded for their creation (oil producers and, to a lesser extent, oil consumers) and not necessarily the ones who absorb the risks of leaks.

      1. You know, it’s everyone else saying that same thing, that makes it a self fulfilling prophesy.  Instead, if everyone says “I’m going to reduce my oil consumption” then suddenly oil consumption is reduced and because it’s not used as much it’s less profitable to bring it in, so costs go up, so “big business” looks to other solutions, etc.You could be the snowflake that starts that avalanche. Instead you are a plank, holding back the avalanche.

        1. I agree with many of your points. On a personal level, I *have* chosen to reduce my oil consumption (I sold my car and now travel exclusively by bicycle). If others did the same, it would help. But I disagree that this is sufficient or the most efficient way to improve things. If all of BC (or North America) reduced their oil consumption to zero, the pipeline would still be built. Expecting the entire world to reduce their oil consumption is naive.

          A far more efficient method of “making things right” is to ensure that those who benefit from a pipeline (primarily the oil producers) also absorb all the risk. Rather than allowing a pipeline to be built on a narrow strip of land, require that oil companies purchase all the land a leak would potentially contaminate. That would go a lot further to ensuring that pipelines are not built (or that leaks do not occur) than reducing oil consumption. Why settle for being a snowflake, when we can all be so much more?

      2. You’ve just made a great argument for the Tragedy of the Commons.  If you’re just one lone individual, your impact is small.  And if we all think that way, we destroy the world.

        Bonus points if we can complain about corporations while we do it.

  2. This isn’t funny, isn’t relevant to anything and doesn’t have any interesting insights.  Single worst post on BB ever.  Give us more of Maggie’s thoughtful, relevant, non-simplistic, non-posturing posts on science and energy anyday !

    1. I dunno about worst, but the satire was kind of poor.  I heard Harry Shearer try a satire on the same subject, and it was pretty lame too.  Maybe oil spills just aren’t that funny.

      1. “Maybe oil spills just aren’t that funny.”

        I think this is it for me. I’m old enough to remember the Exxon Valdeez and BP wasn’t very long ago either. Hell, by cosmic standards, this has all happened in the blink of an eye. Humor is important but Americans (can’t speak for anyone else) need to be proactive in removing themselves from the oil teet we were raised on. It’s no fun, but it should have been done a long time ago. 

        1. Bad as the Exxon Valdez was, I read of one that was even worse that people really don’t know about. It was in 1995 in North Carolina. 25 million or so gal. spilled into the New River and then went directly into the Atlantic causing all sorts of weird havoc. Because it wasn’t oil. It was pig slurry (cute name, huh?), otherwise known as pig shit. That stuff from those ginormous pig farms gotta go somewhere and that is into a slurry pit. When they breach (and they do more often than you’d like to think), well, you just don’t want to be anywhere near. Created a nifty dead zone in the water not only in and of itself but because it triggered a massive pfiesteria bloom which is usually called a red tide.

  3. PR plus NIMBY protest

    By a non-credentialed but totally cool and not a jerk group


    There was some talk about an infrastructure project coming my way and of course I don’t want that.  NO way.

    So I thought the best way to oppose this would be to write a pretend memo that makes the people that want to do the project look like complete idiots and jerks, because of course they are.  And then post this pretend memo on a high traffic internet site.  It’s gonna be so funny.

    The first thing is to demonize the process by making up a repetitive, horrible name: what we’re protesting is EVIL NASTY EVIL NASTY STUFF.  Sometimes we’ll say EVIL EVIL NASTY NASTY SAME-STUFF too.  It doesn’t matter so long as we “brand” the stuff as REALLY BAD.  Of course it is !  This is PR !

    Second, we got to assume these people behind this infrastructure project, that may or may not happen years from now, are all just total complete jerks, idiots and obviously from the OTHER non-cool jerk political party.  No, I mean total a**holes !  Really.  They must be, right?

    And one way to show that is to assume that they are completely into the worst stereotypes of the American middle class: theme parks and fried food !  Isn’t that so funny and brilliant !  Of course these jerks like theme parks and fried food.  It’s August, they are probably all on “VA-CA” at Disney World eating funnel cakes and donuts (note the spelling ! hilarious !).  And they are FAT !  And American !

    Dude, and they must be anti-science !  Awesome ! All those companies that are staffed by tons of scientists and engineers – they HAVE TO BE anti-science scientists and engineers !  Dude, they probably even like to shoot REAL scientists (the non-jerk scientists who will love this brilliant funny memo, because we know there have to be some).  Awesome !  Guns !  These jerks must like guns, too !  What jerks.

    This is PR, people ! We are not jerks but we know the other people are !  Let’s make some jokes based on assumptions that everyone else not with us is a stupid, fat, corrupt, mindless idiot and let’s get our point across !  I bet BoingBoing will even post it !

    1. Yikes. I’m not going to point out all the criticisms of this (admittedly not too great) piece of satire that don’t relate to anything actually in said satire, & just assume you’ve taken it so personally because you’ve got a dog in the fight. Or perhaps you just haven’t been following Enbridge’s truly abysmal recent track record. There are some nice links in the article, if you need help.


      Are we supposed to just accept horribly conceived “infrastructure projects” simply because they are infrastructure projects? I’d consider myself to hew pretty close to the Keynesian camp, but going from “paying people to dig holes, then paying other people to fill them in” to “paying people to cause massive environmental disasters, then paying people to figure out how to clean them up, since those responsible can’t be bothered” is a bit of a stretch.  To argue that projects like Keystone are by definition “good” is to succumb to a form of Stockholm Syndrome; a healthy society doesn’t fight over poisoned table-scraps. We don’t thank our captors for deciding not to behead us today.

      Are we supposed to assume that because the scientists & engineers in the employ of companies like Enbridge are “real” scientists & engineers, they are therefore competent scientists & engineers? As a group, they certainly don’t seem to be. Competent scientists & engineers figure out how to keep things inside the pipelines they design, not outside them (at a rate of roughly 70+ spills per year).  Competent scientists & engineers figure out how to notice & then contain those spills, instead of letting them continue for days & then having no idea how to clean them up. You know, before putting the spill-y things in the pipe-y things.

      Are we supposed to assume that because PR work is widely seen as amoral, it can’t sometimes also be immoral? There’s a difference between spinning & lying, & between convincing & bullying. A defense attorney who ensures his guilty client receives a fair trail is just doing his job, but one who engages in witness intimidation & jury tampering is himself a criminal.

      1. Not personal.  I just think progressives can and should do better than making cartoonish arguments against strawpeople.  The truth is more complex and subtle.  And yes, I do think the scientists and engineers at Enbridge and other companies are competent and deserve our respect.  You may disagree with the business development actions pursued by the executive management of the companies, but the vast majority of the the employees are smart, hard-working, accomplished people supporting families, etc. — doesn’t advance anything to attack them.

        1.  So then, why is it that pipelines are pretty much guaranteed to spill, some minor, some major. But they will spill. And the longer the pipeline, the worse the problem there. Not to mention that they make a lovely terrorist target.

        2. The OP/”satire” in question never mentioned the employees of Enbridge (lay or scientific). You brought them into the discussion.

          I’m a big booster for subtlety, & I certainly accept that some talented people are going to use said talents in pursuit of things I find personally distasteful. Obviously, life has a lot of grey areas & none of us has completely clean hands. That said, earning a diploma does not equal earning respect, & the “just making ends meet/supporting families” type argument doesn’t give an individual a free pass; at a certain point, you must accept some degree of culpability for the actions of the organization that pays your bills.

          Want to squeeze the last drops of fossilized heroin out of the earth for big bucks? Fine. Do it in a way that doesn’t consistently fail, & if you can’t figure that one out, at least suss out a way to clean up the mess. Beyond all that, try to be cognizant of the behavior of your employer, & contemplate how you are linked to their actions. Making a buck, even in trying times, does not automatically place a person in some sort of magic ethical vacuum.

  4. I’ve seen lamer posts on BoingBoing but I’ve never seen so much whining in the comments.

    Boundegar and Max…let’s be realistic for a second.  My electricity bill is already tiny. I could cut it in half and it would not make the tiniest bit of difference.  I’ve been to Austin.  Doesn’t matter how much I reduce my own consumption, there are probably a couple million industrial-size AC units in that town.  And that’s ignoring the fact that household electricity consumption is not really a huge share of total electricity consumption.  Also, if you’re going to complain about unhelpful snark try not engaging in it.

    Similarly, Magnus, taking those actions would not prevent the pipeline.  I suspect that you’re not really stupid enough to believe it would.

    1. The Tragedy of the Commons.  Since you couldn’t make the tiniest bit of difference, and neither could I, then why should any of us even try?

      I once lived in the ghetto for a year, and folks in my neighborhood didn’t mind throwing their McDonalds wrappers all over the street.  The street was already a mess you see, and one more piece of trash wouldn’t make the tiniest bit of difference.

      I’ve also lived in suburbs where people would be horrified at this behavior.  Things are cleaner there, simply because everybody makes the tiniest bit of difference.  So you’re right, one person in isolation can’t make a difference.  The trick is to not be one person in isolation.

  5. See here’s the thing with pipelines and spills. The spills, even the bad ones, are trivial. We’re destroying the planet by bulldozing it for shopping malls, roads and housing, and by burning so much oil, gas and coal in the process that we’re changing the climate, not by spilling a bit of oil on it.

    Oh, and the so-called satire in that memo was pathetic.

  6. While I can’t defend my sense of satire, since it didn’t seem to hit the mark here (actually it looks like for some it missed the mark completely! Ouch and back to the drawing board as they say), I can weigh in on the sentiments of the post (which I still think are valid).  

    First of all, Enbridge (the company behind the pipeline proposal) with the aid of the climate change unfriendly federal government, has been involved in a variety of less than admirable moves to try and push the pipeline into reality.  Clicking on the links, you’ll note a number of press stories outlining cases of (1) allegely censoring a newspaper cartoonist, (2) producing a promo video that conveniently leaves out islands in the challenging shipping routes, (3) being quiet on the omission of particularly nasty environmental reports in certain due processes, (4) providing the somewhat positive downplaying of a spill that happened only a few weeks ago, and most recently, (5) finding out that the required “scientific review” won’t really happen because the government recently gutted the department that would have been responsible for that job.  All to say that sometimes it seems as if anything is a go to make this pipeline happen.

    More importantly, efforts to foster the use of tar sand bitumen (i.e. which also includes the energy heavy processes to clean it up) are often seen by many (including myself) as a proverbial line in the sand.  You can do all the math about coal and gas being the most significant of fossil fuels (which is true), but the fact remains that the bitumen route acknowledges a “carry on with fossil fuels” attitude, which could one day result in emissions that are very significant.  Current climate models would suggest that this is probably not the best course of action.  In other words, we may disagree or agree on what currently counts as trivial amount of emissions, but I tend to think that science minded folk would generally support the idea that maybe it’s better to spend all of this tar sand development money on exploring cleaner alternatives.  

    And don’t even get me started on the less than science friendly attitude of the current federal government…

    1. All in good fun, David.  Keep up the terrific posts on critical thinking and scientific method !  Cheers.

  7. Actually I don’t want a pipeline to go through my neighbourhood to supply unrefined bitumen to China.  Which is the pipeline that is currently under discussion, and my choices have little to do with the intent or use of the pipeline.

    What North Americans (specifically US Americans and some Canadians) don’t really seem to grasp is that the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is intended to sell the bitumen abroad, because the prices in North America are not as high as abroad – because the bitumen is mostly in land-locked Alberta and it is difficult to ship it far.  So we North Americans get a relative bargain on our oil, which really bugs the oil companies.

    So they want to build a risky pipeline that threatens a lot of important land and coastline in order to gain access to foreign markets.  That would allow them to charge more for the oil abroad and at home.

    So what the pipeline supporters are actually advocating is higher gas prices.  Fucking genius.

    1. Your logic is wrong in so many ways, it is impossible to refute. But if the happy outcome of lowering transport costs for petroleum crude (bitumen? – not really) really was higher gas prices, I’d be all for it. Gas prices in North America are WAY too low. Ever fatter people using ever fatter pickups to drive their ever fatter spawn to school is all the evidence I need for this assertion.

      1.  They are planning to ship unrefined (or barely refined) bitumen/crude from the shale beds of Northern Alberta.  It isn’t a matter of lowering transport costs, more one of removing barriers to transport period.  Right now there is no large scale way to ship crude from Alberta to the Pacific Rim – that’s what the proposed pipeline is intended to remedy.

        My point is that it is only a problem for oil companies and their profits.  They have successfully captured the Alberta government to the extent that the simple act of musing about raising royalty rates on crude extraction cost the last premier his job (though to be fair he was a moron in many ways).  They have similarly captured the federal government, though at that level they must be more careful – and yet the PM is making every effort to make sure they get what they want.

        As for the rest of us – the consumers and residents of all these places being put at risk by the proposed pipeline – we will receive little real benefit from expanded oil exports abroad.  Yes, some people will be employed.  But access to a bigger global market, which has higher prices, will not result in lower prices domestically.  It has nothing to do with transport costs, everything to do with market size and relative prices.  Higher prices could easily cost as many jobs as are created by the pipeline – we should at least be considering that side of the equation.

        Our gas usage is a separate and very valid issue – one where I likely agree with you.  In some ways gas prices are too low – though I don’t relish the idea of ever higher prices for food.  The problem with increasing fuel prices as a way to limit consumption is that it has the least affect on the people who are the biggest cause of the problem.  The richer you are, the bigger the car and the more insulated you are from higher grocery prices and everything else.

        1. The crude in Alberta near Edmonton is from oil sands, not shale beds.  The sands are highly processed (2 main methods) and the resulting product is highly refined before synthetic crude oil is produced and able to be transported.

          1.  Fine, it’s been awhile since I worked in the Alberta oil industry, so I’ve forgotten the details.  Explain to me again how decreasing the amount of available crude in North America will drop prices or otherwise benefit North Americans in any way?  (Excluding oil companies).

  8. I honestly thought it was going to be a dig at some actual company/coalition that had a ridiculously “feminine” looking logo.

Comments are closed.