Consider for a moment the possibility of the following scenario: Popular opinion on an exceptionally important debate of national concern is being manipulated by organizations that have a stake in the outcome of the argument.

These organizations claim to be independent analysts, but have no requirement to explicitly state potential conflicts of interest. In some cases, they aren’t required to divulge who funds them, nor whom they fund. They receive money from public and private sources at home, and, in some cases, from private sources abroad as well.

The organizations in question have access to a national media network, which reports their press releases, commentary and sketchy studies as fact.

And as it happens, should the debate in question resolve itself in favour of the opinion of these organizations, it will be of immense benefit to a small group of people, but harmful to the broader public.

This isn’t a completely hypothetical situation, as parts of it are taking place in Canada right now. The only question is whether it’s benefitting anti-pipeline protesters, or the oil and gas industry.

The Allan Inquiry

When the government of Alberta convened the Allan Inquiry — officially the Public Inquiry Into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns — in 2019, it was supposed to find the smoking gun that conclusively proved Canada’s oil and gas sector was being intentionally landlocked by malicious, foreign-funded smear campaigns.

The conspiracy theory that launched a thousand editorials in Postmedia newspapers across the country had been steadily building steam for nearly a decade. As Jeremy Appel pointed out last year in Passage, the theory of foreign manipulation or funding of Canadian environmental groups, as much as the labelling of these groups with ever-increasingly suspect language, predates Premier Jason Kenney’s administration by a considerable margin. In fact, the trope was established without any evidence whatsoever under the Stephen Harper administration.

It was initially driven by research that purported to prove Canadian environmental groups were receiving funds from American philanthropic groups and environmental organizations, ostensibly intended to hamper Canada’s domestic fossil fuel sector. Since then, the conspiracy theory took on a life of its own, being regurgitated by groups such as Canadians for Affordable Energy.

In a nation where some still seem to believe that the National Energy Program was intended primarily to benefit Quebec, it’s not too far of a leap to sell the idea of a vast international conspiracy of well-funded environmentalists denying Western Canada its cash cow. And so, the Albertan government spent about $3.5 million of the people’s money on the effort to prove this conspiracy. Its conclusion, however, was that no such thing had occurred. There is, and never has been, any proof of the theory, which the Allan Inquiry more or less confirmed.

While it’s true that some Canadian environmental organizations did receive funding from similarly-minded foreign sources, this was ‘proven’ by reviewing publicly-reported tax filings (and confusing Tides Canada with the American Tides Foundation, among other gaffes). Over 17 years, 37 Canadian environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGO) that ran campaigns on anything even remotely related to the province of Alberta received about $54 million in foreign funding, none of which was illegal.

Conservative Foreign Funding

The Allan Inquiry wasn’t a complete waste of money, however, as it did find something interesting, even if it didn’t say so.

As PressProgress reported, “Buried in Deloitte’s report is a table with data on foreign funding for the ‘11 largest conservative / market oriented’ organizations based in Canada.” The names of the organizations were redacted in this table. According to a spokesperson for the inquiry, the names of these organizations were redacted because they were considered outside the scope of the inquiry’s investigation. However, they were unredacted in the report’s appendix.

As a whole, just five of these 11 organizations received about $26.6 million in foreign funding (which isn’t illegal) over the same period as the 37 ENGOs. This means that while the ENGOs received about $3.3 million in foreign funding each, the five conservative organizations actually got about $5.3 million.

And yet, while ENGOs were subjected to politically-motivated audits and inquiries to determine where their funding came from, and what it was used for, a similar level of scrutiny from the government of ‘market-oriented’ think tanks has never existed.

Several of the organizations listed in the report have been, or currently are, partners in the Atlas Network, a global network of libertarian think tanks backed by some of the biggest donors to the American conservative movement, including the Koch brothers and the Scaife family, in addition to oil and gas companies like Exxon Mobil, a major player in the tar sands. These organizations include the Fraser Institute, the Montreal Economic Institute, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Manning Centre, now the Canada Strong & Free Network.

The Fraser Institute’s connections to the oil and gas sector has been well-established and thoroughly researched by DeSmog Blog, among others. The Fraser Institute also consistently argues against many kinds of action intended to address the climate crisis that could interfere with the unfettered expansion of oil and gas drilling in Western Canada.

Reports and studies issued by the institute have been harshly critiqued by scientists. For example, climate scientists working for Ontario’s ​​ministry of environment and climate change wrote that a 2017 report from the Institute was “overly simplistic” and “scientifically and methodologically flawed.”

The Institute is reported to have received at least $1.4 million from Koch-related foundations between 1997 and 2017. The Koch Brothers have been among the largest foreign holders of oil and gas exploration leases in Alberta, owning the rights to drill across an area roughly the size of Prince Edward Island. The Climate Investigations Center has also reported that the Fraser Institute received $120,000 in grants from Exxon Mobil in 2003-2004 for climate change programs.

Media Connections

Editorials that are either uncritically pro-industry, effectively deny the existence of climate change or otherwise champion radical libertarianism can be frequently found in the pages of Postmedia publications. Sometimes these writers have connections to groups that have been partners in the Atlas Network, or to the oil and gas sector.

For example, the National Observer has reported that between 2016 and 2020, Postmedia published at least 19 articles by the president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the primary oil and gas lobby group in Canada. Another example is regular Financial Post contributor Gwyn Morgan, who was the founding president and CEO of Encana (now called Ovintiv, and at one point the largest energy company in Canada) and has served as a trustee for the Fraser Institute and the Manning Centre (now the Canada Strong and Free Network.)

The Financial Post has even taken to simply publishing the Fraser Institute’s press releases as is, as part of a partnership with GlobeNewswire. The paper admits it doesn’t review this content before it’s published.

There’s a disproportionate amount of space in Canadian legacy media devoted to individuals and organizations who are either explicitly pro fossil fuel and resource sector or who have direct connections to the industry, and very little interest in either challenging what they’re saying or otherwise providing an equal amount of space to the ‘pro environment’ perspective. As such, Canadian legacy media is filled with pro-industry, climate-change denying talking points, with proponents speaking as though they’re routinely silenced or shut out.

The Allan Inquiry may appear to have had the intention of demonizing environmentalists, but I think it was actually something of a smokescreen: an official investigation into an improbable conspiracy theory designed to camouflage the very real relationships between a number of interested parties in politics, the news media and the fossil fuel sector.

We know the relationships exist, we know various levels of government routinely pump billions of taxpayers’ dollars into the oil and gas sector and we know all of this is having a calamitous effect on the world climate, to say nothing of our apparent interest in limiting emissions. The conspiracy staring at us in the face isn’t called as much because we’ve grown accustomed to this being the normal state of affairs. It isn’t.

None of this activity is illegal, even if it is unethical, immoral and in all likelihood has hampered the national conversation on the climate crisis by keeping us stuck on ‘if’ rather than dealing with the ‘how’ and the ‘why.’

This activity, which helps convince politicians to make decisions that run contrary to the interests of most Canadians, should be fully explored, ideally by an independent national inquiry. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.