Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Can Pew's Charity be Trusted?

US foundations give millions to Canadian environmental groups

By Dru Oja Jay, the Dominion

Since major foundations in the US began funding environmental groups in the late 1980s, many grassroots environmental activists have sounded the alarm about the rise of the "Big Greens." Featuring six-figure salaries and foundation funding, critics say the large environmental NGOs coopt grassroots movements and excercise control over what issues are brought up.

Recently, some activists are warning of a similar shift in Canada. In 2006, land-use planner Petr Cizek wrote an article for Canadian Dimension, calling attention to millions of dollars from US foundations being given to Canadian environmental groups.

The money comes from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is endowed by the fortune of Joseph Pew and his heirs, as well as more recent donors. Joseph Pew founded Sun Oil, now Sunoco, a US oil company with revenues of $36 billion in 2006. Under Pew, Sun Oil also founded Suncor, a Canadian counterpart to Sun Oil and currently one of the two largest operations in Alberta's tar sands. Suncor has been independent since 1995.

Sunoco's US refineries process synthetic crude oil from the tar sands. According to a 2004 Philadelphia Inquirer report, a Sunoco-run Ohio refinery processes 100,000 barrels of synthetic crude per day.

The Pew foundation's original mission reflects on "the evils of bureaucracy, the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people, and the values of the free market." Pew money has funded many right-wing Christian groups and conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the John Birch Society, and the American Enterprise Institute.

In the early 1990s, the Pew Trusts began funding environmental groups.

Groups in Canada that have received money from the Pew Charitable Trusts via the Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI), according to CBI director Larry Innes:

Boreal Forest Network
Center for Science in Public Participation
Ducks Unlimited
David Suzuki Foundation
Ecotrust Canada
Fondation de la faune
Forest Ethics
Forest Stewardship Council of Canada
Global Forest Watch
Manitoba Wildlands
Nature Canada
Nature Conservancy of Canada
Nature Quebec
Ontario Nature
Pembina Institute
Protected Areas Association of Newfoundland & Labrador
Reseau Quebecois Groups des Ecologistes
Saskatchewan Environmental Society
Sierra Legal Defense Fund
Silva Forest Foundation
The Sustainability Network
The Wild Foundation
Western Canada Wilderness Committee
Western Newfoundland Model Forest
Wildlands League
Wildlife Conservation Society
World Wildlife Fund
Yukon Conservation Society

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation
Bloodvein First Nation
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council
Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources
Dehcho First Nations
Grassy Narrows First Nation
Innu Nation
Kaska Dena Council
Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation
Little Grand Rapids First Nation
Little Red River Cree First Nation
Lutsel’ke Dene First Nation
Moose Cree First Nation
Mistissini Cree First Nation
National Aboriginal Forestry Association
Nishnawbe Aski Nation
Pauingassi First Nation
Poplar River First Nation
Prince Albert Grand Council
Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta
Treaty 8 Tribal Association (BC)
West Moberly First Nation

Since 2003, Pew has spent about $41 million on programs on the Canadian boreal forest. Much of this money went environmental and aboriginal groups, and came into Canada via through the Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI). CBI is technically a project of Ducks Unlimited, a conservation group operating in the US and Canada, though this relationship is not stated in materials on CBI's web site. CBI has no board of directors, and no official status as an organization other than its affiliation with Ducks Unlimited. Critics point out that there that this leaves no mechanism for holding CBI accountable for how it uses its money.

According to Executive Director Larry Innes, CBI gives out approximately $2 million per year, though the figure varies. The money is disbursed in roughly equal measure to conservation NGOs and aboriginal groups. Suncor, among others, is listed as one of CBI's "industry partners."

Does the money have an effect on the groups' agenda? "Our role is convener and talent scout," says Innes. CBI's aim is to be "in a position to advance conservation objectives." In many cases, CBI sets up meetings between industry, aboriginal groups and conservationists in order to establish common priorities.

Lindsay Telfer, director of the Sierra Club's Prairie Region, which has received CBI funding in the past, says that groups need to be careful with funding sources.

"Is there a risk that some environmental groups are going to go down a more conservative path because they get funding? I don't doubt that," Telfer told the Dominion. "We have to keep our eyes on our mandates and our goals."

"I believe I've lost funding because of our positions on the tar sands, but where I've lost it, I've picked it up in other places," says Telfer. "It's a difficult debate, because in some ways all money is dirty money."

"The question to ask is, 'Are there ties to how that money is being spent?'"

Cizek says his critique of Pew funding "doesn't have to do with whether money is tainted, but whether a funder directly interferes with the agenda of an environmental organization."

"The Pew Charitable Trusts have consistently set up front groups" that act as a drag on the overall demands of environmental groups, Cizek says.

He sees a "pattern of funding from CBI" corresponding to "a pattern of incredible timidity among the mainstream environmental organizations, who don't seem to be able to take a principled stand on anything." Cizek notes that Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), two major recipients of CBI funding listed as "partners" in CBI's TV ads, have taken a "low-hanging fruit" strategy of lobbying for protection of areas that are of little interest to industry.

Innes says CBI was founded to address a "tremendous opportunity to do development differently in Canada." The opportunity, Innes say, is the culmination of a series of trends in conservation work: the recognition of treaty rights, the willingness of some corporations to embrace "sustainable practices," and the trend among conservationists to protect entire areas instead of chasing biodiversity "hotspots".

"It's one thing to walk in as an environmental group" and speak to policymakers, says Innes, "and another thing to walk in as an environmental group, shoulder to shoulder with First Nations and industry representatives and saying, 'we've got a solution.'"

The CBI is "pretty up-front about wanting to protect at least half of Canada's boreal, and do responsible management where development is going to occur," says Innes.

It's this industry-friendly approach to conservation that many activists object to. The problem with the consensus-building approach, critics say, is that avoiding conflict with corporations means that the fundamental problems with mining or logging that provoked popular resistance in the first place are not addressed.

"In the 1970s and 1980s a vibrant, truly grassroots public land protection movement emerged--first in the West and then nation-wide," writes Felice Pace of Oregon's Ancient Forest Campaign in a 2004 article. "During the 1990s Pew, with support from other foundations, moved decisively to control this movement."

"Pew favors concentrating on 'low hanging fruit,'" writes Pace. "That is, wilderness areas which local congressmen and senators are eager to support because they are not controversial."

In his 1996 book Washington Babylon, US-based author Alex Cockburn noted that "the Pew Trusts' endowment is wisely invested in the very corporations that a vigorous environmental movement would adamantly be opposing."

"In its initial National Forest Campaign, Pew demanded that recipients of grant money agree to focus their attention on government actions; corporate wrongdoers were not to be named. This extreme plan was modified after some recipients balked."

Cockburn writes that just one of the Pew Trusts made $205 million in "investment income" in 1993 from investments in companies like Weyerhaeuser, International Paper, and Atlantic Richfield. Cockburn notes that at the time this was "six times as large as all of Pew's environmental dispensations." Today, however, Pew is reportedly not as heavily invested in resources extraction.

A more recent attempt at cooperation between industry, First Nations and environmentalists in British Columbia has recently drawn the ire of grassroots activists. In 2006, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network and ForestEthics celebrated a major agreement for the preservation of the Great Bear Rainforest. A year later, however, logging companies have ramped up clearcut logging to levels that are "unprecedented in 15 years," in order to gather as much timber as possible before the agreement takes effect in 2009. To make matters worse, "ecosystem-based management" techniques named in the agreement have yet to be defined. Meanwhile, environmental groups agreed to stop the direct action campaign that had previously halted logging, enabling the sped-up clearcutting to continue unimpeded.

"We've found organized, institutional environmentalism has failed over the last four years to accomplish anything," Nuxalk hereditary chief Qwatsinas told the Dominion earlier this year. (See A Clearcut Answer?) "The successes have come from individual grassroots efforts that have basically bypassed the entrenched, bureaucratic, environmental institutions that have been sucking up the enviro-buck and just not getting the kind of accomplishments we need."

Cizek agrees. "In the US," he says, "it has been pointed out that the organizations that are taking a principled stand are the community organizations, the ones whose neighbourhoods are being destroyed." The "Big Greens," says Cizek, often serve to tell local groups that they're asking the impossible, but when proven wrong, take credit for their achievements.

"And they often win the biggest victories."

"Victories," says Cizek, "will not be achieved in Washington, DC, or in Ottawa. They will be achieved on the front lines. The people on the front lines are the ones who are under attack directly. They're not policy wonks trying to figure out what public opinion will tolerate. For them, it's a matter of survival, in many cases it's a matter of life or death."

When discussing the tar sands, Cizek says that the groups receiving CBI funding have been extremely timid. CPAWS, WWF, Pembina, the Sierra Club and others signed a statement calling for a "carbon neutral" tar sands by 2020 through the purchase of "carbon offsets," but said nothing about slowing down or stopping tar sands development itself. A short time later, the Sierra Club called for a moratorium on tar sands development. But it was only after arch-conservative former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed called for a moratorium that CPAWS and Pembina followed suit. WWF Canada has remained silent, though its UK counterpart has recently called for a moratorium.

"To their utter embarassment, the big greens found themselves trailing far behind the curve of public opinion," says Cizek, "and had to scramble to catch up." But the moratorium on new developments, according to Cizek, still does not address the damage that will be done to the water and land by operations that have already been approved.

CPAWS did not respond to an interview request, and a WWF representative declined to be interviewed.

"This is a very high-level political process that's going on," he adds. "This is about cutting closed back-room deals at the very political top, and allowing the environmentalists to achieve some concessions through dealings at the political top to manage their dissent into appropriate channels, so that the industries maintain their right to operate."

Sierra Club's Lindsay Telfer says that too much time is spent denouncing others within environmental and social justice circles. "That's something I've always found frustrating--divisiveness," says Telfer. "I'm more than supportive of other groups that call for more than what the Sierra Club calls for."

Telfer also comes to the defense of those who call for less. "I don't buy into the arguments that CBI is all bad, that Pew is all bad," says Telfer. "I try not to get involved in the infighting." She says she would take money from the CBI in the future if it fits the needs of a particular campaign. "If we're fundraising for a project that has specific goals, I'll take money from people who support those goals," though she adds that the Sierra Club has strict standards concerning who it accepts money from.

Cizek sees a need for a "profound dialogue about the democratic and non-democratic aspects of environmental organizations." Many environmental organizations are private non-profits with few accountability mechanisms. The WWF, for example, has only subscribers, no members. The Pembina Institute, he says, takes money directly from oil companies, to which it sells carbon credits. The Sierra Club is "one of the more democratic of these environmental organizations," he says, and that is "perhaps why they were able to initially take a more principled stand" on projects like the tar sands and the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline.

But he emphasizes that "it's not about quibbling about calling for a moratorium or a shut down," but "what were the processes by which you came to this point, and how might your funders have influenced this decision? What do they actually expect to settle for?"

"Do they actually believe in this insane program of the tar sands becoming carbon neutral by purchasing carbon offsets?," he asks, referring to a statement signed by several groups before Lougheed called for a moratorium.

The CBI's Larry Innes says that the issue of accountability is "an interesting question." His response to it is candid.

"We're accountable to those people who write us a cheque every year," says Innes. "If we don't achieve the kind of goals that they're interested in spending their money on, the funding stops."

For Innes, "a more interesting question is why we need US funding at all. Why is the environmental movement in Canada so small and poorly funded? Where is all the Canadian money? Why aren't Canadian philanthropists (with a few notable exceptions) investing in Canada's environmental and social justice movements?"

Depending on which explanation of foundation funding one finds more convincing, what CBI is accountable for accomplishing and why Canadians aren't providing the same levels of funding to conservationists will have very different answers.

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