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Shooting the Messenger: Tracing Canada’s Anti-Enviro Movement

When former environment minister Jim Prentice held his introductory lunch with U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson in November 2009, Prentice described to Jacobson how he had been shocked during a visit to Norway to find heated opposition to the Alberta oilsands during a public debate over state-owned StatOil ASA’s investment there.

This information was contained in a cable from Jacobson, which was obtained by WikiLeaks and posted by a Norwegian paper.

Prentice was clearly feeling the heat from a global campaign by environmental organizations to frame oilsands oil as “dirty” because of its energy-intensive extraction, which make for Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The public sentiment in Norway shocked him and has heightened his awareness of the negative consequences to Canada’s historically ‘green’ standing on the world stage,” the cable reported.

An Oilsands PR Makeover[view:in_this_series=block_1]

Given the dismal reputation of the oilsands, the government had three options: (a) clean them up by bringing in environmental legislation; (b) discredit the people creating the negative image; or (c) set up front groups to promote the industry, however dirty it may be.

In his discussion with Jacobson, Prentice suggested he would do (a): “impose new rules on oil sands.” But he never did. The federal government — which has promised to deliver oil and gas regulations since 2007 — offered no help.

Instead Prentice, along with the government of Alberta, got to work changing the oilsands’ image. The campaign began behind-the-scenes with intensive international lobbying focused on fighting the European Union’s proposed ‘dirty’ label for Albertan crude.

While those backroom meetings were taking place, another public strategy was being deployed to revive the image of the oilsands: demean those exposing the environmental disaster unfolding in Northern Alberta.

Shoot the messenger and undermine the message.

A Brief Chronology of the Anti-Enviro Movement  

Enter Vivian Krause.

When Jacobson wrote his cable, Vivian Krause — a former PR specialist for the aquaculture industry — was beavering away in relative obscurity investigating critics of farmed salmon.

Krause had previously worked as a nutritionist for the aquaculture industry, which routinely recruits nutritionists to tout the benefits of all salmon, farmed or wild.

She began attacking critics of aquaculture when she “unexpectedly came across a grant for an ‘antifarming campaign’ with ‘science messages’ and ‘earned media.’”

Within a year of the Prentice-Jacobson lunch, Krause switched to researching the funding of oilsands critics. She says the switch occurred “while going through the tax returns of American charitable foundations to try and figure out who was funding the campaign against salmon farming [when she] happened to notice many grants for a ‘Tar Sands campaign.’”

“That’s when I started to write about the campaign against Alberta oil,” Krause wrote on her blog, Fair Questions.

These claims may be true — “unexpectedly came across,” “happened to notice” — but the timing was fortuitous. It was a message Prentice and his replacements as environment minister, John Baird and Peter Kent, as well as the Harper government and the oilsands industry, all desperately needed, especially as opposition to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline — a major thoroughfare for oilsands crude destined for Asian markets — was growing to unprecedented levels.

Krause was given a podium for her revelations in the pages of the National Post, where she wrote eighteen columns on the subject, magnifying her voice many times over. The Post featured her as “the girl who played with tax data.”

Repetition over the following year established the frame that because Canadian environmental charities are funded by American money, they are not acting in the interests of Canadians or the environment, but for American oil. The message dissolves on close examination, but few outside the environmental community were examining it closely.

Other, Fairer Questions

Some of the questions not being asked were just how Canadian is Enbridge, or the other proponents of the Northern Gateway pipeline? Or, more broadly, just how Canadian are the oilsands?

Enbridge is one of the largest energy transportation and distribution companies in North America. Its head office may be in Calgary, but its operations span the continent — 61 per cent of revenues are earned from American operations. Forty-four per cent of Enbridge’s shares are owned in the U.S.

Three major Chinese corporations, Petro-China, Sinopec and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation, are all backers of the Northern Gateway pipeline and, since the project’s delay, have all become major investors in the oilsands.

A 2012 analysis calculated that 71 per cent of oilsands production was owned by foreign shareholders. Even ostensibly Canadian companies — such as Suncor or Canadian Oil Sands — are majority foreign owned.

The Canadian-versus-American oil interest frame just doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

Krause’s research was not difficult to carry out. Many Canadian environmental organizations have obtained charitable status so they can receive grants from philanthropic foundations. These foundations must disclose all the grants they make and this information is assembled in easily accessed web sites where it can be inspected.

Krause herself is not a registered charitable organization so she cannot receive grants from foundations — grants that would be publicly accessible. The money she does receive from corporations and individuals can stay anonymous.

A year after Krause launched her National Post commentaries, she burst onto the political scene. In November 2011, Prime Minister Harper gave an interview with Global TV in Vancouver in which he parroted Krause’s frame, warning that “significant American interests” would be “trying to line up against the Northern Gateway project” which would allow oil companies to export oilsands oil to Asia.

“They’ll funnel money through environmental groups and others in order to try to slow it down but, as I say, we’ll make sure that the best interests of Canada are protected.”

Later in the month, Jim Prentice, by then a vice-chairman at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, echoed this sentiment by telling the National Post that he thought “environmental organizations based outside the country [should] be required to reveal who gives them funding when they participate in Canada’s regulatory process to influence [Canada’s] internal decisions.”

In December, Enbridge president Patrick Daniel joined Harper and Prentice by wondering out loud why “U.S. foundations feel they need to come here to fund opposition to a project that is obviously not in the U.S. national best interest.”

And in the second week of January 2012, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver released his infamous letter warning of “environmental and other radical groups” seeking to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda,” referring to the many groups lining up to speak against the Northern Gateway project at the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel hearings.

Oliver’s letter was followed by a slew of ads attacking Canadian environmental organizations mounted by Ethical Oil, the oil industry advocacy group established by conservative gadfly Ezra Levant and Conservative party apparatchik Alykhan Velshi. Ethical Oil acknowledged Krause’s research as a source of information used in their ads as well as the inspiration for several complaint letters submitted to the Canada Revenue Agency questioning the charitable tax status of prominent environmental organizations. Following those complaints, the federal government launched a $13.4 million investigation into charities receiving foreign funding.

On the top of her resume, Krause credits herself for prompting the revenue agency’s audit of charities, which included seven of Canada’s top environmental groups. And a recent investigation by the National Observer argues Krause was given a leg-up by disgraced Senator Mike Duffy, who appears to have played a critical role in advancing Krause’s research in the political arena and connecting her to lucrative sources of industry funding (Krause maintains this is untrue).

Not bad for someone who just “happened to notice many grants for a Tar Sands Campaign.”

Krause insists her work is not funded: “I haven’t been funded by any industry, any company, any political party, any entity of any kind.” She does disclose honoraria she received for speaking to organizations such as the Association of Mineral Exploration in BC, Canadian Energy Pipelines Association and Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Krause officially closed down her blog, Fair Questions, in June 2012 and wrote what seems to be her last National Post column in 2014. Krause continues to speak at industry-sponsored events.

The Snowball Effect

With Krause’s rise to prominance the work to discredit Canada’s environmental movement was far from over. Since her humble beginnings in 2011, several other organizations stepped in to carry on the “foreign-funded” attack on environmental groups.

One website named “Our Decision” went online the same week Joe Oliver came gunning after “radical” environmentalists who were trying to stop the Northern Gateway pipeline. The site provides no information about the people behind it although donations go to the Ethical Oil Institute, whose directors are Levant and Thomas Ross, an employer-side labour lawyer whose Calgary firm, McLennan Ross, boasts of a relationship with the oilsands industry that goes back to its origins in the 1960s.

The purpose of “Our Decision” is to collect donations to be marshalled in the war against environmentalists: “Will you help us fight against foreign-funded and controlled lobbyists interfering in Canadian affairs?”

Follow the Money Trail” is a second web site that promotes the Krause conspiracy theory. The site went online in mid-2014 and is sponsored by British Columbians for Prosperity, a new organization which, like Ethical Oil, provides no information about its financial backers, directors, members or advisers. The site helps us to “follow the money trail and explore the U.S. foundation funding hypocrisy that’s impacting Canada’s sovereignty.”

The organization hired one journalist to do the research and another to disseminate the findings. The findings, such as they are, had already been found by Krause.

And on it goes. Repeat this message: American billionaires back Canadian environmental organizations opposed to oilsands expansion and pipeline construction, not because oilsands developments threaten the environment or add to global warming, but because they are detrimental to American oil interests.

A perfect bait-and-switch strategy.

Meanwhile, little light has being shed on the funding of citizen groups defending oil production and export.

Unlike environmental groups, whose spokespeople have a clear public profile and whose organizations have long-standing missions, publicly-known board members and financial records, the same cannot be said of pop-up defenders of oil interests such as the Ethical Oil Institute and British Columbians for Prosperity.

Their activities remain shrouded in secrecy.

Image Credit: Vivian Krause speaks at She Talks Resources. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa

Donald is an author and adjunct professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He has studied the…

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