Perception & Context

The complainant, Harold Westdal, thought CBC News coverage of the cancellation of the Energy East pipeline distorted the truth. He said the coverage portrayed the other TransCanada project, Keystone, as approved, and one of three factors that lead to the withdrawal of Energy East. At the time it had U.S. presidential approval but was no guaranteed to go ahead. The coverage was broad and contextual. The word “approved” was almost never used. There was no distortion.


You were concerned about CBC News’ coverage of the announcement that TransCanada had withdrawn its Energy East proposal in early October of this year. You thought the reasons given for the cancellation of the application for the pipeline “seriously misinformed the public.” You said that on The National and national radio news, it was reported that one of the reasons was the approval of the Keystone pipeline. You pointed out it had not been approved. U.S. President Donald Trump had approved it, but it still required the assent of the State of Nebraska before it could truly move ahead. “There is no ‘approved’ Keystone pipeline” you said, and "the reporting in this case presented Canadians with a perspective that is simply not true." Given the amount of coverage CBC News had devoted to Keystone over the years, you wondered how this misrepresentation could have occurred:

The CBC must have known this. And yet the way it was reported they left the unmistakable impression that Keystone was approved and readily available to TransCanada as an alternative. This reporting was so misleading, and I can only assume, intentionally misleading, given the great deal of information the CBC has about Keystone that it constitutes a betrayal of trust with Canadians.

Approval of major resource projects in Canada is a very serious issue and increasingly divisive. If CBC cannot be relied upon to report on these issues in an impartial manner we have a very big problem.


The Managing Editor of CBC News, Steve Ladurantaye, replied to your concerns. He assured you there was no intention to mislead viewers of the coverage. He agreed with you that the approval of the Keystone pipeline is “complicated and uncertain.” He commented that pipeline approvals are complicated and involve “many moving pieces.” In spite of that, he did not think it wrong to characterize Keystone as” approved”, though, as you pointed out, not in the way the word is generally understood:

American politics are anything but predictable these days, after all, and a presidential decree isn’t the money in the bank it may have once been. “Approval” of another pipeline may not be THE determining factor in the cancellation of another pipeline, but it is defensibly one of them.

He also told you he reminded the editorial staff that the outcome is not certain, and their writing and reporting should reflect that fact.


On October 5, 2017, The National carried extended coverage of the Energy East pipeline cancellation. There was a news report by Renée Filippone, a conversation with National Affairs Correspondent Chris Hall - on the political reaction and fallout from this announcement, and further analysis on political winners and losers with the At Issue panel. In all three of these segments, there were three references to Keystone. The first was in Ms. Filippone’s report, which began:

Layoffs and cutbacks have been a cold reality for the past several years at this company that works with the oil and gas industry. The end of Energy East, a major disappointment.

One of the experts then quoted is Andrew Leach of the University of Alberta. He made this reference to Keystone:

It seemed like it was something which was going to be in the cards with the previous announcement of the delay, the re-emergence of Keystone XL and the continued downward look on future growth of oilsands and other production in Western Canada.

Note the phrasing - it is an accurate reflection of the facts. Keystone had re-emerged. It is listed as one of the factors that went into consideration of the decision. The reporter quoted a statement from the company which said it made its decision “after careful review of changed circumstances.” Others that are mentioned ahead of Keystone are the new environmental requirements, all of which add up to changed circumstances.

The second reference comes in programme host Heather Hiscox’s introduction to the At Issue panel. Rather than emphasizing Keystone’s approval, she provided the caveat that it is not a done deal:

So where do the other pipeline projects in Canada stand as of tonight? TransCanada's other big project, Keystone XL, running from Alberta to the Texas Gulf coast is back on for now. In March, Donald Trump reversed an earlier Obama administration decision and granted it a presidential permit. But the state of Nebraska and activists in the U.S. are still fighting it. The Trans Mountain expansion project between Edmonton and Burnaby, B.C. is before the Federal Court of Appeals this week. The Trudeau Government approved it last fall. Indigenous and environmental groups are arguing it was approved without taking into account the full environmental impacts. And the Line 3 expansion was also approved last fall. The Enbridge project is aimed at increasing capacity between Hardisty, Alberta, and Wisconsin.

There is one reference to Keystone in the At Issue panel. Here is the opening discussion, including Andrew Coyne’s reference to Keystone:


The Liberal position on this was clear. TransCanada, according to Jim Carr, a business decision this was, it had nothing to do with any change to the regulatory environment. But I'm wondering, Andrew, first, whether you think in fact the changed landscape actually had a role, or to what extent it had a role in this?


Well, it's interesting the line of the people who do think so. You have a strange concurrence between the environmental groups, Sierra Club, Environmental Defence, et cetera, who think that it did play a role, that in fact this… you know, this new environmental process had doomed the pipeline, and the oil industry and the Conservatives on the other hand who are also saying the same thing. I actually think if you look at the numbers on this in terms of declining oil prices and declining oil production and the expected - and I emphasize "expected" - coming on-stream of the Keystone XL and the Trans Mountain pipelines, that there would be a good business case for shutting this pipeline project. But, you know, the process that has evolved in Canada surely can't be helping, let's put it that way, but…


Which was very much what we heard from economists today, Paul.




That this was an inadvisable change in regulation, but not likely to be the dominant factor in the decision. What's your take, Paul?


Well, I listened to the proponent, TransCanada, who are not mute in this process. They wrote to the National Energy Board and they said that… they didn't say, well, the price of oil has gotten too far down, or Stephen Harper destroyed social licence. What they actually said was the cost of the regulatory process is daunting and we don't want to play anymore. And Rachel Notley whose political survival depends on getting some of these pipelines built or getting Alberta's economy to rebound one way or the other, but these pipelines could sure help, also said that she looks forward to the NEB demonstrating a little bit more clarity in the future than they have in the past. To me that sounds like the process is part of the problem.

Mr. Coyne contextualizes the reference to Keystone, calling it “expected”. That again is not “approved.” I reproduced more of the discussion because it indicates that there was no emphasis on Keystone as a critical factor, and all the references are in passing; nor do they imply it is a certainty.

The very first mention on the day TransCanada Pipelines made its announcement was at 9:00 a.m. eastern:

The Energy giant, Transcanada, says it is not going ahead with its proposed Energy East oil pipeline. The pipeline would have transported over 1,000,000 barrels a day from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in eastern Canada. Analysts are saying the project has diminished in importance for TransCanada after the Trump administration revived the company’s Keystone XL pipeline.

Note the wording - it is accurate and it is attributed.

I have searched the archives for stories that emphasized or overtly referred to Keystone as “approved.” It may have been an hourly newscast when such shorthand was used. I have not found anything. There are local newscasts that may not have been archived, and so I could not access them. There is a reference on World Report the morning of October 6th to U.S. President Trump having revived Keystone. Again, one might take that to mean it is approved, but phrasing it that way is also accurate. There was coverage throughout the day on the News Network, and it is quite possible you heard Keystone as approved. In the context of all the other coverage emphasizing all the other factors, it is hard to make the case that somehow CBC coverage distorted reality. All the coverage emphasized issues of policy and regulation, or the economics of it. In an interview with Natural Resources Minister, Jim Carr, the Minister raises the approval of Keystone. This was not the focus of the discussion or presented as a primary purpose. It was the Minister’s characterization. The discussion then centres around that impact. I found a reference in an online news piece - and you are right it overstates the case. However, that wasn’t true at the time, since Nebraska gave approval for a route at the end of November.

Your concern for precision is a valid one. Mr. Ladurantaye told you he reminded his news team about the need to portray Keystone’s status accurately. News managers and programmers also receive this review. It will reinforce the message, even though on the face of it the coverage to date did not violate CBC policy.


Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman