The Cash Stash Behind Anti-Pipeline Activism

By Vivian Krause

Pipelines are crucial to the safe transportation of oil and gas, yet they have become unusually controversial. Let’s be clear — this is not by chance. This is squarely because a group of American funders, mostly from California, has financed a massive, anti-pipeline campaign against Alberta oil.

Back in 2009, the anti-pipeline movement was put into motion by a trio of U.S. charitable foundations: the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Tides Foundation. The Rockefeller fund is one of the charitable entities of the famous family of oil pioneers, the Hewlett Foundation was created by one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard, and the Tides Foundation (“Tides”) is an intermediary that receives funds from billionaire philanthropists, including Warren Buffett, and distributes the money as the donor directs.

Since 2009, Tides and its funders have quietly financed more than 100 First Nations and environmental activist groups to bring the Alberta oil industry to its knees. Under the banner of an international effort named the Tar Sands Campaign, Tides has made more than 400 payments totaling $30 million to First Nations and environmental groups in Canada, the U.S. and in Europe, tax returns show. That’s more than 400 cheques and wire payments ranging from $12,000 to $700,000.

To the average person, the Tar Sands Campaign is invisible. None of the participating organizations go around saying they are part of a Rockefeller-funded campaign to put the screws to Canada. But that is exactly what they are doing.

When the Financial Post first reported on the Tar Sands Campaign funding in October 2010, information about it was scant. In fact, the only reason this campaign was discovered was because of three little words — Tar Sands Campaign — unexpectedly noticed in dozens of payments that were reported in the U.S. tax returns filed by Tides.

Since the Tar Sands Campaign has come to light, public opinion about it has been split. Some scorn the activist groups and First Nations who are involved, accusing them of being bought and paid for by their American funders. But this view doesn’t fit the facts. Even without U.S. funding, environmentalists have been trying to restrict the oil industry for decades. Indeed, activists have been against oil since long before the big U.S. cheques began to roll in.

In general, the media has given the benefit of the doubt to the activists and First Nations, taking them at their word that their campaign is purely environmental. However, in light of statements made Michael Marx, the long-time director of the Tar Sands Campaign, this stance lacks merit. On his organization’s website, Marx says, “From the very beginning, the campaign strategy was to land-lock the tar sands so their crude could not reach the international market where it could fetch a high price per barrel.” Evidently, the Tar Sands Campaign is not strictly about the environment. By the admission of its original director, this campaign is meant to hurt Canada where it matters: in our national wallet.

No doubt about it, the Tar Sands Campaign also helps to protect American economic and trade interests, guaranteeing that the U.S. has exclusive access to Alberta’s heavy crude at lower prices than U.S. buyers would pay for the same oil from anywhere else.

It is important to note that anti-pipeline activism is funded as a small part of a much larger effort to foster renewable energy. To understand the overarching motivations of the funders, it helps to look at the history of their effort and the way that energy independence has been re-branded as “sustainable energy,” and more recently, as “clean energy.” Saving the climate has become code for reducing U.S. dependence on the Middle East.

As we know, renewable energy is domestic. Fostering renewable energy is tantamount to increasing energy independence and weaning the United States off foreign oil, particularly from the Middle East.

The California philanthropists that are funding the campaign against oil from Western Canada are doing no such thing in their own backyard. Against Texas, North Dakota or Oklahoma, there’s no multimillion-dollar campaign like there is against Canada.

On its website, the Hewlett Foundation makes clear that it does not fund activism in the states that account for 95 per cent of U.S. oil production. Indeed, American charitable foundations are not funding a major campaign against domestic oil production. They are trying to restrict foreign oil production, particularly from Canada. Come to think of it, this isn’t so surprising. Canada is the only oil-exporting country that can be bullied out of the international market without risk of civil unrest and economic collapse.

Back in 2001, on the heels of the California energy crisis and the beginning of the Iraq war, a group of California philanthropists set out to achieve something that had eluded the United States for decades: energy independence. Leading the pack were the Rockefeller brothers and the Hewlett Foundation, which has since become the world’s biggest funder of climate activism. Since 2010, the Hewlett Foundation has granted more than $1 billion to organizations that spearhead the climate movement.

By 2004, the Hewlett Foundation and like-minded philanthropists had put together a suite of energy policy initiatives including Securing America’s Future Energy and the Apollo Alliance. Why that name? Its funders recognized that energy independence would be no less of a challenge than putting a man on the moon.

The Apollo Alliance produced a landmark document titled New Energy for America that called for no less than $300 billion in U.S. government loans, subsidies and grants to kick start a global market for renewable energy. Around that same time, the Rockefeller brothers and others produced a document called How to Talk to Americans. This report gives tips for what to say about touchy issues like getting off Middle East oil and promotes the re-branding of energy independence in the name of protecting the environment. Eventually, the Apollo Alliance changed its logo, replacing the words “energy independence” with “clean energy” and then merged with labour unions to become the BlueGreen Alliance.

In 2015, the United States ended its longstanding ban on exporting U.S. oil. By 2016, according to Bloomberg, U.S. oil companies exported three million barrels a day of refined products. Gasoline exports hit an all-time high of almost one million barrels a day, up tenfold from a decade ago. Of course, the U.S. couldn’t export its own oil without a lockdown on the Canadian crude that covers at least one quarter of domestic requirements.

Since the Tar Sands Campaign began, anti-pipeline activism has come to be about much more than oil. First Nations who have felt powerless for decades have new power, purpose and more.

If pipeline companies and their clients want to dial back the activism against their business, they need to deal directly with the big U.S. funders who have bankrolled the organization of anti-pipeline protests. The protesters aren’t paid but the organizers sure are. Until pipeline companies deal directly with the big U.S. funders, the organizers of the anti-pipeline movement will continue to do what they are paid for.

Vivian Krause is a Canadian writer. On Twitter, she’s @FairQuestions.

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