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Biofuels message tightly managed

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Biofuels message tightly managed
As the federal election campaign continues to build, word is spreading that the Harper government has kept a tight rein on communications regarding Canada's controversial biofuel program, an initiative worth 2 billion dollars.


September 15, 2008
By CanWest News Service/Regina Leader-Post

As international concern about growing crops for fuel mounted over the last year, the Harper government tightly managed the message on Canada's controversial $2-billion biofuel program.


Rather than having federal program managers and researchers speak for themselves, government communication staff have been compiling answers to media queries and forwarding them to ministers' offices and the Privy Council Office (PCO) for approval, according to documents released to Canwest News Service under access to information.


"We need to have both the technical response but with the govt (government) messaging," Michael Whittaker, now acting assistant deputy minister of communications and consultations at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said in an e-mail to communications staff last February regarding one media query on biofuels.


It had taken staff in three departments — Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment — a day and a half to compose and get approval for the response, which arrived after the reporter's deadline.


"One of the issues that required some back and forth with MINO (minister's office) and PCO was that the language was too scientific," Whittaker said, explaining why getting approval had taken so long.


He went on to say "we need to get regular feedback/approval from the centre on this topic as well, so it's difficult to be as timely as we'd all like to be."


The biofuel program aims to have five per cent ethanol and other renewable fuels in gas tanks by 2010. The heavily censored documents show the program, which creates markets for farmers to sell crops for fuel production, is expected to reduce Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions by about four million tonnes a year. That is less than one per cent of the country's annual production of 720 million tonnes of greenhouse gases.


But Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his biofuel program will put "a real dent in emissions. In fact, it's estimated that the reductions will be equivalent to removing almost one million vehicles from the road," Harper said in announcing details last summer.


The one million cars figure was a head scratcher for Johanne Geoffrion, chief of ecoEnergy biofuels at Natural Resources, who the documents show was asked to fact check Harper's speech before it was delivered.


Geoffrion noted in an e-mail to a colleague that the PMO's math, equating a four megaton emission reduction to taking a million cars off the road, did not jive with the department's own assertion that a reduction of 5.4 megatonnes is equivalent to taking over one million vehicle from the road.


The documents also show the government's response to perceived criticism.


On July 6, 2007, Natural Resources was asked to draft three letters to the editor defending the biofuel program: One letter in response to a "headline in the Edmonton Journal," another relating to a Canadian Press wire story "that hasn't been printed yet" criticizing Harper's biofuel announcement and a third regarding an article in the Globe and Mail on the food-biofuel issue, the documents say.


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