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Secret Agreement in the Works Between ENGOs and Tar Sands Industry

Will environmentalists continue to allow foundation funding to dictate to the movement?

by Dru Oja Jay

Will the plan to greenwash the tar sands continue apace? Photo: Dru Oja Jay
Will the plan to greenwash the tar sands continue apace? Photo: Dru Oja Jay

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.

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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
Member since Janvier 2008


Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

1110 words


Ecological Illiteracy (and Lunacy)

Funniest line in this account? "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.'"

This proves that oil company execs (and Lazar) are ecologically illiterate (and ecological lunatics) -- forests at least stand a chance of growing back. Extraction of tar sands oil is an ecological abomination, as is burning fossil fuels, we've come to learn.

I hope this potential "partnership" doesn't prove that ENGO execs are as desperate for funding as they appear -- at any cost.

Mothball the tar sands! That oil ain't goin' anywhere. Let's just leave it in the ground for now. Let's safeguard the future first, then see if we can invent that carbon sequestration technology they used to talk about. (You know, like when my grandparents babysat me and my little brother on New Year's Eve and whispered to me that I should go to bed and just pretend to fall asleep -- then get up again once my bro was asleep. Yeah, like I stayed awake. Sly grandparents! But let's take our lessons from anywhere we can get 'em.)

Big ENGOs have Not Failed Enough Yet

The Big ENGOs have not failed enough yet to threaten their waning legitimacy with the public. A deal with "Big Oil" on the tar sands may be just what is needed to move them from the incomplete ruin represented by their current mild form of social revolt to actual ruin.

Forest Ethics, Suzuki, Pembina, CPAWS and even Greenpeace accommodate themselves to the system, and for many of their campaigners their sense of achievement is largely in the direction of the extent to which they become  acceptable to or accepted by the power structure.

The idea that the ENGOs would lead us to freedom has always been a contrdiction in terms.

As Ella Baker once said, "My basic sense of it has always been to get people to understand
that in the long run they themselves are the only protection they have against violence or injustice .... People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves."

thoughts on shadowy cabals

I cannot speak for all the people/groups mentioned in this article. I also do think that the groups mentioned could and should do more and be more hardline when it comes to environmental standars. I think capitulation happens and gets called compromise all too often. That said, to label a group shadoy for not disclosing its entire funding spectrum is just a bunch of crap. And for one simple reason - no matter how much money Tides or others give to organizations, that cash is dwarfed by our opponents war-chest. I work for one of the NGO as a librarian, and I am certainly not privvy to financial details or strategy on this issue. I do know the people I work for however, and though they get Tides money and work in the TarSands coalition they are also staunch believers in how tarsands infrastructure/politics/bigoil have to stop before we are all devastated.


To decry the good work done by big NGOs in favor of a populist movement that aint likely to happen until soldiers start shooting neighbors is hope of the kind that we cannot afford. I believe that every bit of the environmental defense spectrum has to be engaged - from grassroots to meg-NGO. Otherwise the ability to educate and inform people dwindles to zero. I am not physical violence to defend the world we live in, but I am also not dumb enough to think that swaying the beast by whining about big NGOs is going to do anything. I say stop whining and do what you have to do. Constantly playing the holier than thou or greener than thou card does nothing but steal your energy from where it could be directed.

Portrait de dru

Who is whining?

The first step is to admit there's a problem. Most people haven't done so.

Then, we can talk about what to do about it. How to engage the (E)NGOs that have a long history of selling out movements and switching sides when its convenient.

It doesn't sound like you're very informed about where the Tides money is coming from. Check out the Pew pages in Offsetting Resistance. Here's a preview: circa 2009, 7 out of twelve of Pew's board of directors were either former employees of Sunoco, or heirs of Sunoco fortune. The Pew Charitable Trusts also give money to far-right think tanks.

What is the Rockefeller foundation? Check out the first line of the bio of its founder.

If environmentalists are going to accept money from these folks, there needs to be total transparency to account for the obvious conflict of interest. There need to be mechanisms to make sure that the money is actually being used to protect the environment and not greenwash destruction.

That's the opposite of the current state of affairs.

Even without that, the tactical exigency of stopping a secret deal in the tar sands is more direct and short-term. If even a small number of ENGOs sign a deal, people who are trying to fight the tar sands won't just have to fight the oil industry, they'll have to fight the foundation-funded ENGOs who signed an agreement to help oil companies market their product as green(er).

dru~ Most people don't


Most people don't realize there is a problem that can be addressed. Agreed, and a point that I will come back round to. I actually have read a great deal of all the literature and reports out there - I am a research librarian whose interest is not just cursory. I am inordinately over informed if anything. I just draw slightly different conclusions about strategy.

I am not saying that there is not reason to scream "WTF" to most of the ENGO's out there in terms of capitulation. What I am saying is that the push to go "left" of "left" (so to speak) is aiding the "right."  Despite it being the better stance to take! Conundrum.

The argument about money is a hard one - grassroots draws of cash and capital are one thing and funding from foundations are another. Just because it is foundation money does not necessarily mean that everything it pays for is tainted with some sin - though the board's of directors are often a suspicious and curious nest.  You often argue that this is the case, but I argue that that is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You may argue otherwise, but then we return to the idea of getting money from grassroots to educate the very same grassroots about something they have a harder time grasping when utterly radicalized by those with the deepest convictions (of which I am one).

The key benefit of megaENGO's is that they can educate a broad swathe of people that you and I cannot. Now, do they educate them well? Most likely not - propaganda flies better than truth and is an easier read.  That said, I often read your work about the secret cabals meeting behind closed doors and then shake my head because I was aware of those doors and they were not secret nor closed. Not saying they were accessible, but they were not closed! Funding transparency is an amazing issue - and I agree with you about the mechanisms but not about the revealing of money totals. Why? Because an army of lawyers and a bigger warchest will trump the transparency and tactics of any megaENGO and all of them combined.

And that brings me to my rephrase - I love you guys and the work you do. Hell, I contribute to most all of the causes you work on. I am a hard green nutcase along the lines of Dr. Barry over at ecointernet BUT I still believe that it would be a better tactic to grow a longer stick and increase leverage on top of the concessions made by groups like greenpeace et al instead of confusing most people with two messages when they cannot even swallow one. What's stopping you from pushing harder on the same entities that are fucking over the Boreal instead of trying to do that AND trying to push into greenpeace "territory"? Just becuase greenpeace "approves" something does not mean you have to, yes?!! And greenpeace labelling does not carry any more weight than any other label with a lot of consumers - most of whom are duped by a tree logo that they never read anyway.

And, for the record, I meet a lot of the people in these bigger ENGOs and none of them are about concessions to the oil industry. I cannot speak to logging, but I can speak to the oil issue - every ENGO in the "shadowy" group (as you label them becuase they don't divulge their resources to our common enemy) that I have had any dealing with understands that a concession here is a fucking death sentence sooner rather than later.

Fighting ENGOs AND corporate power is too much - and they are not synonymous powers. This is why I say the whole spectrum of work is needed - even the "sellout" variety that you decry.  Why? Look at the people you are trying to inform and educate and that should answer that question. ( I am not talking abou the choir or the recipients of the immediate downstream like native peoples and most non-euro/non-north americans - they don't need educating.) Even the sellout "progress" can be used to underpin more pressure, whereas labelling all that "progress" as lies usually causes the fatigue and gloss routine in most of the target audience.  Meaning, the message "do more" is usually more acceptable than "undo what you thought was done and do it again our way."

And, finally, to fix my ranting typo in the original post, you are yakking with  someone who is not above physical confrontation of the earth-rapists that hide in corporate entities. I would as soon feed many of these shits to pigs than sit at the table with them....but I understand that the ability to sit in suit and treat with these devils still has value in the world we all live in and that those who do sit with the devils are not also somehow transformed into devils too. Weak in comparison to what they should be, but not evil or malign.


thanks for the reply.


p.s hope that this is not a double post - my machine is wonk.

Portrait de dru

Secret agreements

Hi Heather,

I don't recall where I said the groups were "shadowy" -- I can't find a mention of it in Offsetting Resistance or the report that we're now discussing.

You explain pretty well what the problems with big ENGOs are in terms of their potential for education.

I think that the problem with what you're proposing is that ENGO agreements actually preclude further action. When Greenpeace agrees to help forestry companies market their products, it means that every time a grassroots group or first nation wants to pressure that company because of this or that abuse, the company can turn to the public and say "we've got Greenpeace on our side." So the two are not compatible, because once the agreement is signed, we have to fight Greenpeace in addition to the logging companies.

Second, we didn't create this situation, the ENGOs did. We're simply pointing out some of the consequences of their choices.

Finally, if you know any ENGO people who don't think that a secret agreement in the tar sands is desirable, they can send comments to this effect to me at dru [ at ]

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