With all of the cutbacks in newsrooms, there isn’t a lot of investigative reporting going on in Canada. So kudos to PostMedia reporter Mike de Souza for some truly relentless digging to get to the bottom of a University of Calgary “research” account that was used to fund a $500,000 advertising and public relations campaign to oppose action on climate change.

De Souza first wrote three years ago about how a group with the Orwellian name “Friends of Science” had hired a public relations professional (who was simultaneously a registered lobbyist for several oil companies and a spokesperson for the Conservative Party in the 2005-6 federal election campaign), to coordinate buying newspaper and radio ads claiming that global warming was not caused by humans.

The missing pieces from that earlier effort were who funded this effort and what they spent the money on. Friends of Science paid for their ad campaign out of a University of Calgary research account controlled by Professor Barry Cooper, but the university and the Calgary Foundation (who also received donations and transferred them to the research account, presumably handing charitable tax receipts for the money) refused to release details.

De Souza appealed the U of C’s censorship, and won. As a result, we now know that the largest single donation was $175,000 from Talisman Energy, a major Canadian oil company who lobbied hard to keep this information from becoming public on the grounds that it would cause “reputational harm” (so maybe they shouldn’t have done it?). But other donations also had links back to oil companies.

We also got a better sense of what they were spending it on: six-figure contracts for PR firms and ad buys, a $1000 lunch at the Petroleum Club and expensive gifts for climate deniers and other items that are questionable “research” expenses.  Talisman and the University of Calgary are now distancing themselves from this spending, but as an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen noted that while universities should provide space for unconventional thinking as long as it is based on solid research, hiring PR companies and running partisan ads trying to discredit solid science is crossing a line (and as a Citizen editorialist added, discredits conservatives).

But this isn’t just an accounting SNAFU. As I told de Souza, Friends of Science wasn’t about  science any more than the tobacco industry dressing people up in lab coats to say smoking can’t hurt you was about science:

"This was never about science," said Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner Keith Stewart. "It was about implementing a political strategy invented by a Republican spin doctor to cast doubt on the science so governments wouldn't force polluters to clean up their act. I am surprised that a university would channel donor dollars to support this kind of anti-science agenda."

Stewart also compared the tactics of climate change skeptics to recent public relations efforts involving the industry and officials from the federal and Alberta governments to lobby against climate change action that would single out emissions from the Alberta oilsands.

"We know that the oil industry has been the major funder of the climate denial industry in the United States and has spearheaded the charge against action on climate change here in Canada," said Stewart. "People don't like big oil, so the industry likes to work through front groups with neutral-sounding names."

Which brings us to the latest apparent attempt by oil companies to work through a front group. A group calling itself “ethical oil” that is running pro-tar sands ads on tv is claiming to be a grassroots group based in Toronto, but is in fact housed in a Calgary law office specializing in serving oil sands companies.

Makes you wonder where their cash is coming from...

Note: Greenpeace has extensively researched the connections between the fossil fuel industry and climate deniers (see for example, our history of the climate denial industry and our unveiling of the Koch brothers connection), but I would be remiss if I didn’t also give a shout-out to the great work on the Friends of Science file done over the years by DeSmogBlog, as well as the Deep Climate blog.