Social Media Distortion on Canada's EA Processes: A Look at Woodfibre LNG's Floatel Amendment

Before a firestorm of fervorous social media posts by the environmental group, My Sea to Sky, there was an overwhelming 89% support for Woodfibre LNG.

The British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office (BC EAO) and the Federal Minister of Environmental and Climate Change both heavily weigh public input when deciding to approve or reject major projects. This report looks at the recent BC EAO comment period for Woodfibre LNG to show what drove the perceived public opinion.

Woodfibre LNG's Floatel Amendment

On October 29, 2019, Woodfibre LNG submitted an application to amend its environmental assessment approvals with the BC EAO. This amendment included "temporary self-contained floating worker accommodation (floatel) with approximately 400 - 600 beds and associated mooring infrastructure, workforce accommodation onboard a marine construction vessel, onshore water treatment, and pedestrian access path to the floatel."

Comment Period

On November 4, the BC EAO provided notice that the public would be invited to submit comments from November 12 to December 12. The public comment period opened as scheduled but was extended to December 15 because the platform used to submit comments, the BC EAO's Electronic Project Information Centre (EPIC), had technical issues between December 6 and 8.

The blue bars in the chart below show the cumulation of supporting comments for the application throughout the comment period, the grey bars show the cumulation of opposing comments and the light blue shading on the right shows the extension of the comment period.

My Sea to Sky

My Sea to Sky is a strong opponent of fossil fuel development within British Columbia. Since they were established in 2014 their focus has been on stopping Woodfire LNG. Following the money for a moment, funding for My Sea to Sky comes from the likes of the clothing company, Patagonia, as well as Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund (EDRF). EDRF is a West Coast Environmental Law initiative that provides grants to a number of environmental organizations within British Columbia. An article in the National Post last year shows significant contributions to West Coast Environmental Law by San Francisco-based Gordon and Better Moore Foundation, as well as the Tides Foundation. Vivian Krause's research also unveiled funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.

There has been a monumental effort by Woodfibre LNG to engage and consult with all groups and communities impacted by this project. Referencing the RegSync LNG Dataset, 'My Sea to Sky' is mentioned in more than 500 of the 10,500 consultation records that have been made publicly available. This is very high involvement for any group, let alone an environmental organization. My Sea to Sky is mentioned more times than any impacted group, Indigenous community, regulator, municipality or government body. For perspective, the next two most consulted groups are Tsleil-Waututh First Nation with 493 consultation records and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA, and which has been replaced by the Impact Assessment Agency- IAA) with 194 consultation records.

Media Influence

Articles were published by Global News, Coast Reporter, Alaska Highway News and The Local Weekly two weeks before the comment period began and therefore their impact on support or opposition for the project cannot be measured.

On the opening day of the comment period, November 12, the Squamish Chief posted an article covering a protest organized by My Sea to Sky. More than 30 protestors voiced their opinions outside Squamish Municipal Hall while council held meetings with Woodfibre LNG, Fortis BC and the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission. Surprisingly, this did not result in any opposing comments being submitted to the BC EAO that day. In fact, only one comment opposing the application was submitted in the first 18 days of the comment period, while there were 105 comments supporting it.

BC EAO Influence

On November 13 the BC EAO posted a comment on its EPIC platform that the comment period was open. This correlated with 52 same-day comments supporting the application and zero comments opposing it. On December 13, they posted again to inform the public that the comment period had been extended. This correlated with 11 supporting comments and one opposing comment.

Social Media Influence

My Sea to Sky knows what triggers their followers and they took advantage of it. In the last five days of the comment period, they began a social media campaign across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Their posts drove emotional responses with wording such as, "600 cashed-up, mostly male workers that don't have a connection to our community," while updating their status to "My Sea to Sky is feeling angry." My Sea to Sky's 6,800 social media henchmen were then directed to the BC EAO comment page, given instruction on how to comment and encouraged to use this 1,920-word form letter. Here are a couple of their Facebook posts.

My Sea to Sky told their followers on December 15 that Woodfibre LNG was "trying to skew the optics of the environmental assessment process by rallying supporters from across Canada to submit positive comments on their proposed floatel." In assessing the impact of social media posts from Woodfibre LNG and My Sea to Sky on the environmental assessment process, My Sea to Sky had significantly more influence. On December 10, there was an accumulation of 14 comments opposing the application. The next day, My Sea to Sky began posting on social media. By December 15, the number of opposing comments skyrocketed from 14 to 509.

The only two groups who were influencing social media followers to comment on the project application amendment were My Sea to Sky and Woodfibre LNG.

The charts below highlight days of social media posts (blue shading) for both My Sea to Sky (top chart) and Woodfibre LNG (bottom chart). The My Sea to Sky chart also shows the share of public comments that used My Sea to Sky's form letter. As in the chart above, these bars show the cumulation of comments.

Anonymity of Commenters

A criticism of the IAA and the BC EAO's environmental assessment processes is that there are no safeguards against a single person or group submitting multiple comments. One way this is made possible is by allowing submissions to be anonymous or made with a false name. We looked at anonymous versus identified (people who provided their name) comments for this Woodfibre LNG application to see if we could find a trend with people either supporting or opposing. The charts below show the percentage of cumulative comments over the comment period that were made anonymously.

By the end of the comment period, there appears to have been no significant difference between anonymous supporting comments and anonymous opposing comments. It is very interesting, however, that on the day the social media posts began for My Sea to Sky, there was a significant increase in the number of opposers who chose to provide a name. More research may tell us how many false names may have been given and what caused the peak in identified comments opposing the project.

What Were People Commenting?

We applied artificial intelligence to the comments to see what people were talking about. The top word cloud shows keywords used by opposers of the application and the bottom word cloud shows keywords used by supporters.

May He Who Is Without Sin...

Public comments supporting the application are correlated with BC EAO public notifications and Woodfibre LNG's social media posts. The only impact on the number of opposing comments was from My Sea to Sky's social media activity- but that impact is remarkable. The impractical, 'what if,' is that if social media influence were excluded, there would have been approximately 10x more comments supporting the application than opposing it.

My Sea to Sky accused Woodfibre LNG of trying to skew the optics of the environmental assessment process. Looking at the data, that is not the case. It was My Sea to Sky who skewed the optics and, based on their tactics and social media prowess, understood exactly how to do it.

In a day when social media is king, energy companies and their supporters must do a better job at leveraging platforms and technologies to share their stories. Only when they do this can the perceived public opinion collected throughout the environmental assessment process more accurately reflect actual public opinion.

This report by DIMEC was published on January 13, 2020.

Greg Gutowski, DIMEC

Want to know more about consultation for all LNG projects in BC? RegSync is a database of all consultation records (concerns, comments, engagement logs, commitments and regulatory conditions) submitted to regulators for all BC LNG projects.

About RegSync

Every Consultation Record. One Location.

There are six regulators who oversee oil and gas development in British Columbia and Alberta. Each has its own, very unique and complex application directory. This makes it difficult and time-consuming to find consultation records, let alone perform analysis and identify trends. Our DIMEC (data and information management for engagement and consultation) experts synchronize information from every regulator and convert every document submitted by every proponent, stakeholder and Indigenous community into a single, easy to use dataset called RegSync. RegSync includes every concern and response, feedback on applications, public comments, working group comments and engagement logs. Click here to learn more.