If you want to understand why federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver is so hot under the collar, ignore the hype over “foreign funding” and look back at what happened at last year’s meeting of federal and provincial energy ministers. The lesson from this little trip down memory lane: Heaven help anyone who thought Team Harper was serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tries to help them reach their own climate targets.

Greenpeace volunteers stage protest outside Enbridge headquarters in Vancouver over proposed Gateway pipeline

I was, at first, somewhat perplexed by Minister Oliver’s accusation that groups opposing the proposed new Enbridge Gateway tar sands pipeline that would go through the Great Bear rainforest in northern BC were using “foreign funding” to “hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda”.

I wasn’t particularly surprised that the Harper government would try to demonize their opposition (even when that opposition consists of participating in a public hearings process set up by the government). But I did find it odd that the primary object of Minister Oliver’s wrath was not your friendly neighbourhood Greenpeace activist or our fellow-travellers, but the rather straight-laced Tides Canada Foundation. After all, as MacLeans Magazine has noted, the Harper government has not been shy about embracing Tides Canada and their work in the past.

Plus the furor over supposedly “foreign funding” seems likely to backfire, as it gives groups like Greenpeace the opportunity to point to all of the lobbying and public relations dollars pouring in from foreign oil companies. Or to ask, if the Minister is truly so concerned about foreign interests, then is he not concerned that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producer’s Vice President for Policy and the Environment (i.e. lobbying) came to the job after  a 23 year stint in the U.S. Foreign Service, where he specialized in protecting U.S. interests with respect to energy.

Not even the pro-pipeline National Post editorial board is buying Oliver’s socialist-billionaires-with-a-secret-agenda line, saying “Anyone who thinks that George Soros-sponsored American environmentalist NGOs hold a candle to the oil industry in terms of money and influence has been watching too much Glenn Beck... [it] just makes them look like talk-radio xenophobes”. And the campaign is unintentionally unmasking “Ethical Oil” as shameless shills for the industry (for a particularly painful example of message point #fail, watch their spokesperson refuse to answer if Enbridge is funding them over and over again in this interview on CBC’s Power and Politics).

Then I noticed a press release from the Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC) stating “Minister Oliver is one hundred per cent correct...” and I cast my mind back to last year’s meeting of federal and provincial energy ministers.

EPIC was created and co-chaired by Bruce Carson (a political back room boy known as “the mechanic” within the Prime Minister’s Office) as a lobbying vehicle for the oil industry. Carson set up conferences, authored papers for the oil industry, and even presented EPIC’s ideas directly to politicians.

As The Tyee has lovingly documented, Carson subsequently imploded rather spectacularly in an influence-peddling scandal. But EPIC continued on with their quest for a national energy strategy that would provide the justification for the infrastructure required to rapidly expand the tar sands, including “building a new pipeline infrastructure to the West Coast to open up export markets around the Pacific Rim.”

The culmination of all this effort was supposed to be the 2011 meeting of federal and provincial Energy Ministers, hosted by Alberta. It featured a presentation of EPIC’s vision and policy recommendations, with the expectation they would be endorsed.

But EPIC wasn’t the only outside group presenting a vision at that meeting. Tides Canada was also there with some clean tech venture capitalists to present their New Energy Vision. A vision which outlines the kind of policies needed to achieve the Conservative government’s own climate change targets of a 17 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, with a longer term goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius which the Harper government has agreed requires a reduction in emissions from industrialized nations on the order of 80 per cent by 2050.

This green energy alternative got on the agenda of the energy ministers’ meeting thanks to endorsements from businesses, First Nations, academics, faith organizations and environmental groups. But it also got a positive reception from provinces, like Ontario and Quebec, that are keen to develop renewable energy as part of their economic strategy.

Coming out of the meeting, it initially appeared that EPIC had won the day, but that agreement soon unravelled thanks to conflict over labelling the tar sands as “sustainable.” And it thus became a lot harder to argue that pipelines are unquestionably in the “national interest”.

Since then, the tar sands industry has gone into in panic mode about being (in the words of the former Alberta Energy Minister) “landlocked in bitumen” thanks to the successful campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline.

So perhaps the venom being directed towards Tides Canada by whoever is drafting Minister Oliver’s speaking points has less to do with where the money comes from or who they are giving it to, and is really about the threat posed by a compelling alternative vision to that of our current federal government and their backers in the tar sands.

Anyone who cares about open, democratic debate should, however, fear the collateral damage that will result from the Harper government purusing this vendetta even further. 

Full disclosure on Greenpeace Canada’s funding:  We do not accept any money from governments, political parties or corporations in order to maintain our independence. Greenpeace Canada get 95% of its funding from individual donations, and the vast bulk of that in the form of regular monthly donations in the $10 - $50 range. Approximately 5% of our funding comes from charitable foundations, and in recent years this has included Tides Canada.