New Research: How the Government of Alberta and the Oil Sands Industry Have Thwarted More Effective Regulation

George Hoberg
November 29, 2011

A new article in the Canadian Journal of Political Science describes the strategies used by the Government of Alberta and the oil sands industry to deflect pressure for more rigorous environmental regulation of the oil sands. Playing Defence: Early Responses to Conflict Expansion in the Oil Sands Policy Subsystem (pdf available below) by George Hoberg and Jeffrey Phillips, examines how powerful policy actors defend themselves against opponents’ demands for change through a case study on the oil sands of Alberta.

Political science theories of public policy conflict focus on interactions among three forces: actors (or interests), ideas, and institutions. The approaches we find most useful are “actor-centred” in that they focus on strategic actors pursuing their interests by adopting strategies that make the optimal use of their resources. Strategies can involve developing coalitions with other actors, working in the arena of ideas through strategic “framing” of issues, and “venue-shifting” to select the institutional arena most advantageous to their interests. The oil sands case is rife with framing dynamics, with the conflict between “dirty oil” and “ethical oil” frames being the most obvious example. This article, however, deals with the institutional strategies.

In response to an escalation of criticism of its performance on environmental regulation and related issues in the mid 2000s, the Government of Alberta sought to contain the conflict by pursuing a strategy of selective opening of the policy process through multi-stakeholder consultations. Our article is strongly influenced by the work of political scientist Sarah Pralle and management theorist Christine Oliver. Oliver highlights alternatives faced by organizations under attack: acquiesce, compromise, avoid, defy, and manipulate. The Alberta government and oil industry have not acquiesced, have compromised perhaps a bit, and have persistently avoided and then defied criticisms. When defiance and avoidance became harder to justify, they turned to a type of manipulation by inviting stakeholders, including aboriginal groups and environmentalists, into consultation processes that dragged on without producing meaningful policy change reflecting the concerns of oil sands critics.

We look at three such processes. In the one case were the terms of reference focused on facilitating industrial expansion of the oil sands (the Radke report), the pro-development recommendations were quickly adopted by government. In the other two processes, recommendations posing challenges to the dominant industry–government power nexus have not been acted upon. In the case of the Oil Sands Consultations Multi-stakeholder Committee consensus voting rules were used to block changes. Even in cases where there was cross-sectoral support—the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) land use recommendations—the government failed to act on the recommended policy change. As the paper concludes: “The emerging pattern seems to be not consultation for regulation, but consultation instead of regulation; what might be dubbed a strategy of ‘talk and dig.’”

The article closes by questioning the sustainability of the oil sands establishment’s defensive strategy, essentially a form of co-optation in which opposition actors are neutralized or won over by assimilating them into the established power structure. Thus far, this strategy has been relatively successful in containing change. But it is important to recognize the risks of cooptation, properly understood, as a strategy. The most well-developed treatment of co-optation, sociologist Philip Selznick’s classic TVA and the Grassroots, is based on a different interpretation of co-optation than the current conventional meaning. Selznick’s concept involved opposition groups being brought into the dominant power structure, but in doing so, the official goals of the organization had to be altered—a process he called “goal displacement.” As the paper concludes:  “Mollifying opponents can risk providing legitimacy to their point of view and, as a result, lead to a shift in power and policy change. In the oil sands case, the government of Alberta has formally acknowledged the legitimacy of environmental critics by giving them a formal voice in the consultation processes. Now that environmentalists have denounced those processes and withdrawn, the government’s strategy has lost its legitimacy.”

Since the research for the article has been completed, criticisms of the oil sands have expanded but so have the defensive strategies of the oil sands establishment. There is little indication, however, that any significant shift in power over oil sands policy has occurred within the Canadian political system. For that to happen, some major disruption of the policy subsystem will need to occur. The surprising decision by the Obama administration to postpone the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline is a sign that the cracks in the fortress may be growing.


George Hoberg and Jeffrey Phillips, “Playing Defence: Early Responses to Conflict Expansion in the Oil Sands Policy Subsystem,” Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique 44:3 (September/septembre 2011) 507–527 doi:10.10170S0008423911000473
© 2011 Canadian Political Science Association (l’Association canadienne de science politique) And/et la Société québécoise de science politique
access pdf: Hoberg and Phillips CJPS

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