In Attacks on Environmental Advocates in Canada, a Disturbing Echo of Extremist Politics in the US

Critics say the provincial government’s inquiry into foreign funding of activists has devolved into incompetence and relies on reports laced with conspiracy theories and climate denial.

The Syncrude Canada Ltd. oil sands mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Thursday, June 4, 2015. Credit: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Syncrude Canada Ltd. oil sands mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Thursday, June 4, 2015. Credit: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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A week after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, the provincial government in Alberta, home to Canada’s oil industry, published a series of reports laced with climate change denial and conspiracy theories and targeting environmental advocates.  

The reports were part of a public inquiry, now in its final stages, launched by Premier Jason Kenney in 2019 to probe what he called a foreign-funded “anti-Alberta energy campaign.” The effort drew sharp criticism from the start as a veiled attempt to intimidate activists who opposed the rapid expansion of Canada’s oil sands. Some advocates said they received death threats after its launch and had their social media feeds inundated with hateful screeds.

But opposition boiled over after the reports were published last month. One claimed that environmental advocates were part of a “transnational progressive movement” that was using climate change as a pretext to stage a “voluntary” overthrow of the global capitalist system. Another, which holds that foreign interests are targeting Canada’s oil sector, was written by an American oil industry group.

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The reports “would make even a skeptic blush in terms of how incredibly bad they are,” said Martin Olszynski, an associate law professor at the University of Calgary who submitted comments on the reports to the government. 

But he and others warned that the inquiry bears a disturbing similarity to the lies that culminated in the storming of the Capitol last month, and is a symptom of a dangerous strain of politics that has spread across both the United States and Canada, where it is feeding off the struggles of the nation’s oil industry.

Canada’s oil sands, also known as tar sands, are an especially dirty and relatively expensive source of crude. As a result, growing global pressure to transition away from oil has been felt acutely in Alberta, where the economy has long revolved around fossil fuels.

Investment in Canada’s oil industry has fallen steadily since 2014. A decade of campaigns against major pipelines scored a significant victory when President Biden canceled the Keystone XL in January. Now, activists on both sides of the border are pressing Biden to halt a separate tar sands pipeline that is under construction in Minnesota.

The pressure and falling fortunes have bred resentment in Alberta that Kenney seized on as a candidate in 2019, when his party won control of provincial government. He called environmental advocates “anti-Alberta” and accused them of “economic sabotage.”

“The premier stoked up a fever pitch against these groups,” Olszynski said. “People had to resign from public service because he had targeted them as being part of these sort of foreign funded special interest groups.”

Alan Boras, a spokesman for the inquiry, said he could not comment on accusations that it was politically motivated, but he defended the reports it commissioned, saying the inquiry wanted to get a “broad perspective.” He said the central question before the inquiry is, “is it deemed proper by Albertans and Canadians that money from outside the country play an influential or strongly influential role in determining public policy and economic development of the resources.”

A spokeswoman for Kenney did not respond to requests for comment.

The commissioned reports were the most substantive materials to emerge from the inquiry, which has operated largely in secret since its launch. The timing of their publication, one week after the attack on the U.S. Capitol Building, should serve as a warning, Olszynski said.

“Maybe that’s a moment,” he said, “for people to take stock and pause, in Canada and the U.S., and think, where is this narrative taking us? Is this really the quality of information and discussion that we want to be having, or is it time to move past that?”

‘This Has Been a Witch Hunt’

In the late 2000s, Canada’s oil industry was booming. Oil prices were sky-high and multinational oil companies were constructing billion-dollar tar sands projects. But with growth came pollution. Massive mines replaced boreal forest. Waste pits spread across the terrain, leaking toxins into waterways. The extraction also releases large volumes of greenhouse gases, and the tar sands began drawing scrutiny from environmentalists in Canada and the United States, who started questioning the rapid expansion.

Their resistance gained traction, most notably when President Obama denied a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015. At the same time, an oil boom in the United States flooded the global market and pushed down prices. Lower oil prices, coupled with rising awareness of the pollution from oil sands, sapped investment from the sector. Over just a couple of years, an oil boom had gone bust, and some Albertans wanted someone to blame.

No one denies that Canadian nonprofits have raised money from U.S. foundations—advocates point out there is nothing wrong with doing so. And any sums environmentalists have received are tiny when compared to the foreign investment that has flowed into Canada’s oil industry, investment that Kenney has actively sought. Imperial Oil, one of the country’s largest energy companies, is majority-owned by ExxonMobil.

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But for several years, Kenney and other Conservatives have been arguing that foreign interests were trying to strangle the petroleum industry, citing the work of a Canadian researcher who has received funding from oil companies.

The argument gained traction among a segment of Albertans, and “those are the people that Premier Kenney is speaking to,” said Andrew Leach, an energy economist at the University of Alberta. Leach compared Kenney’s “fight-back” style of politics and the public inquiry he launched to Trump’s trade policies. “Almost all of them were probably bad economic policy,” Leach said, “but they were speaking to a particular part of America and saying, ‘I’m listening.’”

When Kenney launched the inquiry in July 2019, advocates across the country felt targeted, and some received threats, said Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice, a Canadian environmental law nonprofit. His group started fielding calls from activists asking if they needed lawyers and wondering whether they should send staff home for their safety.

No one drew more attention than Tzeporah Berman, co-founder of the advocacy group Stand.Earth, which has led campaigns against pipelines. Berman was appointed by the previous government as co-chair of a committee that brought together industry, environmental advocates and local communities to try to reach consensus on how to clean up the oil sands. But that role also made her a target for Kenney.

He posted videos to his Facebook account calling her an “anti-Alberta, anti-energy industry activist.” At a press conference Kenney held soon after assuming office in 2019, a pro-industry activist held up a small poster with a picture of Berman and the words “enemy of the oilsands” covered with the universal “no” symbol, a red circle with a slash through it. 

“Over the next several months I got a series of death threats and attacks—misogynist and racist and anti-semitic attacks,” Berman said. “This has been a witch hunt from the very beginning.”

Questionable Credentials

If the inquiry launched with a bang, it proceeded with a series of thuds. The final report, due last July, was delayed, then delayed again. The budget for the inquiry swelled from $2 million to $3.5 million Canadian (about $2.8 million U.S.), while an interim report delivered to the government last year has yet to be made public.

Environmental groups that have been named by Kenney or others say they have not received any formal queries about the sources of their funding. But the criticism from opponents of the inquiry turned to ridicule after the reports were published last month.

One report called climate change a “pretext” for the “relatively non-violent overthrow of capitalism,” comparing the progressive movement in the United States and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, to factions struggling for power ahead of the Russian Revolution. Among the institutions allegedly “captured” by this “transnational progressive movement,” the report claimed, were the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as the consulting firms McKinsey and Deloitte and Microsoft. The report recycled arguments that have been used for decades by climate change deniers, including that scientists have ignored or manipulated data that disproves human-driven warming. An entire section criticized journalists who covered climate change, calling them propagandists.

In addition, the authors of the reports had questionable credentials to comment on climate change and the nature of philanthropic giving. One of them, Tammy Nemeth, holds a Ph.D in history, was formerly a guest lecturer at an English language university in Germany and is now an “independent history scholar and researcher,” according to Boras, the inquiry spokesman. Nemeth, speaking through Boras, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Boras added that climate change is not a subject before the inquiry, and said the issue would not be included in any of its official findings.

A second report, which described “Changes in the Organization and Ideology of Philanthropic Foundations,” was written by Barry Cooper, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. In an interview, Cooper said he had no prior experience in the subject. He said he knows the commissioner of the inquiry, a forensic accountant named Steve Allan, through their work on the Calgary Stampede, an annual rodeo.

Cooper said his interest in the topic was fueled by his sense that Canadian oil executives are too reluctant to push back against environmentalists.

“American oil guys are a little more aggressive,” he said. “They understand that environmentalists are not their friends, and that they can’t be bought off. My sense is from talking to a lot of oil and gas guys, they think they can buy off their enemies. And I keep telling them, ‘You guys are just naive and stupid, it ain’t gonna happen.’”

The third report commissioned by the inquiry, “Foreign Funding Targeting Canada’s Energy Sector,” was written by Energy in Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

The report’s core claim is that the campaigns that have targeted Canadian pipeline and energy projects are not the grassroots efforts they are made out to be, but are in fact funded by wealthy, foreign foundations, chiefly the Rockefeller philanthropies. (The report includes a mention of Inside Climate News, saying that it has received funding from the Rockefeller foundations and is biased in its coverage). 

Jeff Eshelman, a spokesman for the petroleum association, said, “We are proud to have been asked to contribute our report to the public inquiry.”

Boras, asked about the Albertan government paying $50,000 to an American oil industry group to write a report about foreign efforts to target Canada’s oil industry, said, “Energy in Depth was determined to be an organization that could provide observations on the mandate of the Inquiry. That’s why it was selected.”

A Cautionary Tale

Page, of Ecojustice, said the controversy that has swirled around Alberta’s inquiry has led the effort to backfire.

“At the end of the day I think it has actually helped the issue,” Page said, “because I think it has fostered a debate not only about the use of our energy resources, but also effective leadership by premiers, and a premier in particular.”

Ecojustice has filed a lawsuit seeking to have the inquiry halted as a biased and improper use of government authority. Unless the organization prevails in the case, the inquiry’s final report, which was delayed for a third time in January, should become public in a matter of months.

Kenney is facing questions from the liberal opposition in the Legislature about his leadership, including his decision last year to invest more than $1 billion of government funds into building the now halted Keystone XL pipeline. His critics say the inquiry has undermined his credibility and hamstrung Alberta, while a new administration in Washington is seeking to take action on climate change.

Olszynski said the ordeal should serve as a cautionary tale for Americans as the oil industry comes under increasing pressure in both countries.

“As things start to get more heated,” he said, “as you start to see your government and president start to take more action, threatened interests I think will reach for this playbook.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the governing body of Alberta as the Parliament.