What do the ALS ice bucket challenge, Alberta oil, and Leonardo DiCaprio have in common?

10142156Hollywood star, Leonardo DiCaprio, was in Alberta for a new documentary about the environmental impacts of the oilsands (a.k.a. tar sands). He met with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations who have been protesting against developing the oilsands. DiCaprio is among a host of celebrities speaking out against the oilsands. Others include Desmond Tutu, Neil Young and James Cameron. They join other celebrities who have been vocal opponents of the Keystone pipeline including Mark Ruffalo, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kevin Bacon.

Proponents of the oilsands and the pipeline, including the Prime Minister’s office, have dismissed celebrity involvement in Alberta’s oil industry. According to Yahoo Canada News, the Prime Minister’s Office has commented in the past about “the energy-demanding lifestyle often afforded to such celebrities” and Tim Moen, leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada, referred to it as celebrity cheap talk demonizing Alberta’s oilsands. Moen told Yahoo Canada News that “The people I take seriously are people who actually create solutions. People that find ways to get cheap clean energy into the hands of people who want it.” 

Over the course of the last two years, First Nations have been instrumental in challenging the federal government over further developing the oilsands as well as the construction of the pipeline through the use of both institutional and extra-institutional tactics (see my earlier posts Direct and indirect challenges to the pipeline and Idle No More: Allies of the environment). Celebrity participation and support has been an important part of this mobilization especially in raising awareness in Canada and the U.S. as well as around the world.

Is there some truth though to Moen’s framing of DiCaprio’s and others’ involvement as “celebrity grandstanding?” More importantly, can celebrity involvement hurt the cause? Gary Lamphier of the Edmonton Journal suggests that celebrities can diminish the credibility of oilsands and pipeline opponents given celebrities’ “excessive” lifestyles. Lamphier notes DiCaprio’s watching the World Cup in Brazil from a gas guzzling superyacht.

Getting the public interested in both the oilsands and the pipeline (and maintaining that interest) has been a challenge and no doubt, celebrity involvement puts the issue on the map. However, proponents of the pipeline in both Canada and the U.S. have repeatedly framed the project as a jobs creator – a frame that surely resonates with many Americans and Canadians who are either unemployed or struggling financially.

While DiCaprio’s visit to Alberta might be seen as an indirect challenge to proponents of the oilsands and pipeline, DiCaprio directly challenged Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper with the ALS ice bucket. Allies against the oilsands and pipeline also challenged various opponents. Chief Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation challenged Dave Collyer president of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Chief Courtoreille of the Mikisew Cree First Nation challenged Mark Little of Suncor Canada and The Sierra Club President Michael Brune challenged Shell CEO Ben van Beurden.

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