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June 1, 2020

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Companies’ PR blitz: Campaigning for hearts and minds

Critics unmoved by Tesoro-Savage effort to win support for Vancouver oil terminal

By , Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter, and
, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published:

This past summer, the companies hoping to build the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal in Vancouver sent many residents a 16-page “fact booklet” about the proposal.

The glossy mailer touts the project’s economic benefits and emphasizes energy independence. It broadly describes new safety standards for railroad tank cars. Over a scenic photo of the Columbia River Gorge at dusk, it says this: “The new terminal will continue a legacy of environmental stewardship.”

Bruce Davis, for one, was not impressed. The longtime Vancouver resident said his first reaction upon reading the materials was, “Well, that’s one side of the story.”

The booklet wasn’t the first time Clark County residents have heard directly from Vancouver Energy, a joint venture of Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. It likely won’t be the last. The two companies have mounted an aggressive and elaborate effort to reach people as they pursue an oil transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver. In addition to sending mailers, Vancouver Energy has conducted professional polls, hosted events and established a charitable fund as it tries to make its case to the public and to regulators.

Yet many, like Davis, remain skeptical. The companies’ latest booklet troubled him on two fronts, he said: what it left out, including the details of high-profile oil train disasters in recent years, and what it exemplified — the enormous power of corporations to influence politics.

Such campaigns aren’t unusual in other parts of the country, observers say, but it’s unfamiliar territory for Vancouver. The city has recently found itself a focal point in the larger fight over oil trains and fossil fuels.

Large companies have shown they’re willing to make big bets when profits are on the line, said Shannon Murphy, president of Seattle-based Washington Conservation Voters, which opposes new oil and coal projects in the region.

“So far in Washington state, all these small communities have held the line,” Murphy said. “And Vancouver is in the middle of this fight right now.”

Information or persuasion?

The public doesn’t have a direct say over whether the Vancouver terminal gets built. That decision ultimately falls to Washington’s governor, after a recommendation from the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

Yet public opinion about controversial proposals such as the oil terminal matters, according to Cynthia-Lou Coleman, a professor of communication at Portland State University.

That’s in part because elected officials pay attention to mass public opinion of high-profile issues. “If the governor reads headlines that (the) public is opposed to this, he’s going to think twice about his decision,” Coleman said.

It’s also in part because the companies seeking to secure projects such as the oil terminal are mindful of how they’re perceived by the public. “Do we look good?” is one question on their mind, Coleman said.

Vancouver Energy has released two polls showing strong support — more than two-thirds — for the oil terminal among Clark County residents. In an email on behalf of Vancouver Energy, Savage spokesman Jeff Hymas said the companies conducted the surveys “to get an accurate gauge of what people know and think about the project.”

The companies “have been gratified by the significant and sustained support for the project expressed by so many people,” Hymas said.

Late last month, however, a separate poll released by Washington Conservation Voters painted a very different picture. That survey, which targeted likely voters only within the Port of Vancouver taxing district, found a slight majority of 51 percent opposed to the terminal.

Vancouver Energy’s goal in its outreach efforts is to provide accurate information through every step of the review process, Hymas said. One key difference in this project compared to others the companies have pursued is that the review has taken much longer than expected, he added, “which increases the need for a more sustained effort to provide information.” Tesoro and Savage filed their permit application to the site evaluation council in 2013, and it is still unclear when its recommendation to the governor will be made.

Vancouver Energy has put “a tremendous amount of resources” into complying with the review process, Hymas said. But it’s difficult to know exactly how much money is being spent on the campaign surrounding the oil terminal. Tesoro and Savage are private companies, and aren’t required to disclose specific expenditures. Their efforts aren’t tied to any election, so campaign finance reporting laws don’t apply. The same goes for environmental groups spending money to fight the project.

The companies believe it’s important for the community to be aware of their commitment to safety and providing jobs, he added, plus the benefits of the project that include using domestic oil. The rail-to-marine facility would handle an average of 360,000 barrels of crude per day.

“And while there are alternative energy efforts underway, petroleum is the bridge to our energy future, and people depend on this product in their daily lives today and will for many years to come,” Hymas said. “That’s factual information, not persuasion.”

Davis, who opposes the project, doesn’t see Vancouver Energy’s efforts as balanced.

“It’s so lopsided,” he said of the recent mailer. “Would you think anyone would believe this? It’s just a PR deal from the word go.” Davis sees the companies as reaping all of the upsides of the project and no downsides. “It’s a no-risk deal, meaning that they spend a little money, they get the contract, they get the cars rolling, make the money,” he said.

By contrast, Davis said, the community faces all of the risk. “I really don’t think this community or any community is ready for this type of thing,” he said. “I just think it’s too risky.”

In response to criticisms that Vancouver Energy’s efforts have downplayed risks, General Manager Jared Larrabee said those issues will be thoroughly analyzed in the project’s draft environmental impact statement due out next month. The companies look forward to the document’s release, Larrabee said.

Other campaigns

The effectiveness of corporate public relations campaigns “depends on if there is more information floating about the community,” Coleman said. The campaigns “work up to a point, but then you’ve got other voices in the community that bring up questions.”

Vancouver Energy has run into a vocal, well-organized opposition. So did the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a business group that emerged a few years ago to push for coal export terminals in the region.

Supporters and opponents of the coal terminals packed hundreds of people into public meetings across the state, including gatherings in Clark County in 2012 and 2013. But the campaign quieted as a few projects fizzled; many advocates turned their attention to the rise of oil-by-rail.

Another example of a high-profile corporate push to win public favor for a project occurred during Oregon’s November 2012 general election, Coleman said. That’s when voters were asked to approve two ballot measures that would have enabled the construction of a privately run casino in the Portland area. It would have been the state’s first nontribal casino.

As with the oil terminal sought by Tesoro and Savage, the pro-casino campaign ran into organized opposition.

Like Tesoro and Savage, backers of the casino weren’t shy about trying to get their message across. They ran an intense campaign to drum up voter support, including TV ads and detailed brochures.

Ultimately, they pulled the plug on their campaign ahead of the November election, citing a lack of voter support. Both casino measures went down to overwhelming defeat.

“These guys pulled out all the stops,” Coleman said, “and it failed.”

Sometimes, though, corporate public relations campaigns work.

Years ago, Coleman said, she studied one such example in Wisconsin involving a company’s attempt to pursue a copper mine in the city of Ladysmith, Wis. The company, Rio Tinto Zinc, “reframed the environmental stances and called itself ‘Stewards of the Earth’ and quoted Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson and Chief Joseph in their” public relations campaign, Coleman said in an email to The Columbian. “They also started an ‘adopt the owl’ program in elementary schools. And they won the contract” for the copper mine.

Charitable fund

Vancouver Energy’s efforts to be a part of the community have involved more than mailers and meetings. Earlier this year, the companies set up the Vancouver Energy Community Fund, aimed at supporting education, public safety, environmental conservation and other causes. The fund was launched with a $300,000 combined commitment from Tesoro, Savage and BNSF Railway.

The companies have worked with the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, which helps coordinate charitable giving in the area. A separate advisory board also evaluates grant proposals to the Vancouver Energy Community Fund.

During last month’s Give More 24! campaign, the Vancouver Energy fund provided nine $1,000 matching gifts to organizations including the Clark College Foundation, Fort Vancouver Regional Library Foundation, Mount St. Helens Institute and others. The fund also put up $4,000 in nonprofit challenge prizes for the event.

Not everyone has welcomed the support, said Noland Hoshino, a member of the Vancouver Energy fund’s advisory board. Nonprofits sometimes struggle with where their funding comes from, and whether donors reflect their values or mission, he said. A few organizations turned down donations from the Vancouver Energy fund, Hoshino said, though most have accepted.

Even Hoshino himself said he had questions before deciding to join the advisory board. He has concerns about the proposed oil terminal, but said the issue is more nuanced than many have portrayed it.

“I’m neither for or against the project,” said Hoshino, co-founder of Vancouver-based digital marketing company Bcause Media. “I’m on the fence.”

Vancouver Energy started the charitable fund as part of its efforts to be a good citizen, Larrabee said. Tesoro and Savage have “absolutely” taken similar steps in other communities where they have a presence, he added.

The companies want future employees to know what Vancouver Energy stands for “well before they fill out a job application,” Larrabee said. The new venture has met with community members and sought local input as it establishes itself in the area, he said.

Vancouver Energy figures to be a presence in Clark County for some time. Tesoro and Savage say they’re committed to a state review process that has dragged on for more than two years and still has a long way to go. The companies will continue to provide information every step of the way, Hymas said.

If the terminal is approved and built — far from a sure thing at this point — it could operate for 15 years or longer, according to an analysis commissioned by the companies last year.

Until that happens, opposition groups will continue to push back against what they view as a high-powered Vancouver Energy campaign.

“It doesn’t surprise me by any means,” said Murphy of Washington Conservation Voters. “It’s one of the reasons that we think it’s so important to work with community members and get the word out.”

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