A slew of recent articles have pointed to the likelihood that some foundation-funded environmental groups and the tar sands extraction industry are getting ready to make peace and sign a deal. The precedent, these reports note, has been set with the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement and the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. What the media coverage doesn't mention is the actual character of these previous deals, and the unprecedented consolidation of funder influence in the hands of one man that is driving environmental groups toward such an agreement.
Things got started back in April, when a secret "fireside chat" was planned between oil industry executives and ENGO leaders, including former Great Bear Rainforest Agreement negotiators Tzeporah Berman and Merran Smith, and representatives from Tides Canada, World Wildlife Fund, Pembina Institute and others. After word circulated about the "informal, beer in hand" discussions, the meeting was called off--temporarily.
The idea hit the corporate media in September 2010, with reports that Syncrude Chairman Marcel Coutu had solicited David Suzuki to broker an agreement between environmentalists and tar sands operators. Suzuki rebuffed him, saying that a dialogue was not possible while oil companies were funding lies about their environmental impact.
But the idea didn't die--and neither did the lies. In October 2010, during a major ad campaign from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that compared tar sands tailings to yogurt, the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald published a report by Sheila Pratt entitled "Is an oilsands [sic] truce possible?"
Pratt interviews Avrim Lazar, CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), the group of logging companies that signed an accord with Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation, and several other Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (ENGOs). That was the "Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement" (CBFA).
Pratt repeats the false claim that the agreement preserves 72 million hectares of forest. In fact, the CBFA maintains the current rate of logging, simply shifting a small portion (about the size of metro Toronto) to areas outside of the caribou range. Furthermore, it requires ENGOs to defend the logging companies that signed against criticism and help them market their products.
Of all of Pratt's interviewees, only Greenpeace's Mike Hudema states the obvious: it is not possible to green the tar sands.
On October 21, John Spears of the Toronto Star interviewed FPAC's Avrim Lazar, who told Spears of the calls he was fielding from oil company executives curious about the logging companies' experience finding common ground with environmental groups. Lazar said that an important precursor to an agreement is for both parties to recognize that tar sands operations have an environmental impact, but for environmentalists to "stop calling oil sands extraction 'an abomination that has to be stopped'.
"Once you have those two, then you have something to talk about," Lazar was quoted as saying. "You can go to problem-solving mode... It doesn’t become easy, but it becomes possible."
Oil companies left no doubt about their interest in an agreement. What about their ENGO partners?
They waited until October 23rd to express interest. Ross McMillan, CEO of Tides Canada Foundation, wrote a letter to the Financial Post in response to a right wing attack on foundation funding for anti-tar sands work published on October 15.
"At Tides Canada we are working to bridge these two polarized camps," wrote McMillan, referring to environmentalists and oil companies. McMillan, who was also slated to attend the aborted "fireside chat" in April, went on to cite Tides' role in the 2001 Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, which dealt with a massive area of BC's central coast. When that agreement was signed, ForestEthics negotiators emerged from secret negotiations with logging companies to announce that they had signed a deal for 20 per cent protection. That was less than half of what scientists said was the minimum area that would need to be preserved to avoid damaging biodiversity, and it violated protocol agreements they had signed with local ENGOs and First Nations. None of that mattered to the signatories, who proclaimed themselves victorious.
There are two key differences between agreements signed ten year ago, and those anticipated today.
First, deals have become even more transparently meaningless. Greenpeace and company literally declared that they had "saved the Boreal forest" by signing an agreement that actually makes no net change in the amount of logging. No CBFA signatory can say with a straight face that they have protected an area the size of Germany, though press releases on their site still make that claim. Even the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement completely preserved 20 per cent of the vast forest. Though some activists say that ENGOs subsequently turned a blind eye to clearcutting on Vancouver Island, negating even those gains.
Second, and most crucially, funders have consolidated control of funding for anti-tar sands campaigns to an unprecedented extent. Anyone who wants foundation funding (which most ENGOs rely on) for their campaigns has to talk to Corporate Ethics founder Michael Marx. Marx and his coordinators set funding priorities through the "Tar Sands Coalition," a structure that, according to internal documents, is supposed to remain "invisible to the outside."
All of the money for the Tar Sands Coalition comes through Tides Canada Foundation. We know little about where it originates, though the bulk of it comes from US mega-foundations like the Pew Charitable Trusts, which outed itself as the architect of the CBFA after giving millions to environmental groups doing Boreal forest work. Other big donors include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the David & Lucile Packard Foundation.
Together, they have given at least $4.3 million to tar sands campaigns since 2000. Together, they hold vast power to decide the fate of those campaigns.
Control over the vast majority of ENGO funding for tar sands work is firmly in the hands of Michael Marx, on behalf of foundations with a taste for collaborative agreements. Journalists seem willing to print claims about "saving the Boreal forest" or "protecting an area the size of Germany" without seeing any actual agreement.
Our future hinges on the tar sands. Will any level of environmental destruction, loss of human life, or climate change be considered an acceptable cost to continue consumption of fossil fuels? Or is there a limit to the amount of destruction we will accept?
If a secret agreement is allowed to go forward, then those who cannot accept ever-escalating destruction will have to fight other ENGOs in addition to fighting the oil companies. Will the Tar Sands Greenwashing Accord continue as planned?
For more about ENGOs and the collaborative model, read the 2009 report Offsetting Resistance: The effects of foundation funding from the Great Bear Rainforest to the Athabasca River, by Macdonald Stainsby and Dru Oja Jay.