Listen to Damien Gillis on CHLY’s A Sense of Justice from last week, discussing Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan’s proposed Tar Sands pipelines through BC. Damien and host Rae Kornberger cover the National Energy Board’s recently-begun hearings into the Northern Gateway Pipeline to Kitimat and the contention by fake grassroots group EthicalOil.org and the Harper Government that foreign interests are behind BC’s opposition to the project. Is there any truth to these claims and what is the relationship between EthicalOil.org and the Harper Government? (41 min – from Jan. 11)
Read this in-depth report from DeSmogBlog.org exposing more connections between “astroturf” group EthicalOil.org and the Harper Conservatives. (Jan 14, 2012)
The Ethical Oil-Harper government revolving door doesn’t end there. Hamish Marshall is married to EthicalOil spokeswoman Kathryn Marshall, who took over last fall when her predecessor Alykhan Velshi moved into the Prime Minister’s Office as the director of planning.
Hamish Marshall, through strategicimperativesonline, has registered 32 websites. Nearly all are connected to EthicalOil.org, the Conservative Party of Canada, and the right wing Alberta Wildrose Alliance Party.
The web gets really interesting when you look at the other sites registered on Marshall’s server.
Conservative Party candidates with websites hosted on Hamish Marshall’s server include Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, one of the most vocal proponents of the tar sands. Oliver’s open letter last week refers to the “environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade”. See the WhoIs profile for www.JoeOliver.ca.
The various spokespeople for supposed “grassroots” pro-Tar Sands and pipeline organization EthicalOil.org have steadfastly maintained their campaign has no connection to the oil and gas industry or the Harper Government. But as the links between these groups continue to pile up, that contention becomes harder and harder to swallow.
I witnessed conservative pundit Ezra Levant debut his “Ethical Oil” concept when he came to Vancouver to debate the Wilderness Committee’s Ben West in late 2010. The premise Levant laid out at the Rio Theatre – essentially, that bitumen from Canada is the “fair trade coffee” of the world’s oil supply because this country has a better human rights record than Saudi Arabia or Iran – was being parroted soon thereafter by newly minted Environment Minister Peter Kent.
The synchronicity of talking points between Ethical Oil, Enbridge, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (the oil and gas industry’s official lobby) and the Harper Government should be our first clue that these entities are working together on some level.
“Ethical Oil” didn’t just spring from nowhere – it was carefully conceived in the manner of major advertising campaigns and the work of Republican strategist Frank Luntz (who coined “the death tax” in order to push lower estate taxes, and encouraged the Bush Administration to re-frame global warming as “climate change”, for instance). In fact, what we are presently witnessing around the Enbridge debate is the full-force implementation of American-style political campaign tactics – where everything is built around a single, simple concept – like “socialist” Obama-care (right!), “tough on terror”, or Orwellian distortions like the “Patriot “Act – which, no matter how illogical, gain traction through relentless, monosyllabic repetition, delivered via the triple threat of corporate media, government and corporate-backed lobbies, “think tanks” and pr firms.
It remains to be seen how effective these tactics will be with Canadians. Already there has been some surprising push-back in the mainstream media – from Stephen Hume’s shrewd analysis in the Vancouver Sun this week, to tough questions from CTV News and the CBC’s Evan Solomon (a must-watch) and Anna-Maria Tremonti (a must-listen) in recent weeks. At least some of the nation and province’s top political commentators aren’t falling for the Ethical Oil routine.
The parallel messaging extends to the notion of “foreign meddling” in the National Energy Board review of Enbridge’s proposal, now underway. The contention – from both Ethical Oilers and Stephen Harper, Industry Minister Joe Oliver and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – is that because some large US philanthropies are donating money to campaigns in BC opposing Enbridge’s proposal, the decision making process is being “hijacked” by “radical environmentalists” fronting for American interests. I won’t go into this argument any further – for Stephen Hume and Terry Glavin of the Ottawa Citizen have both nailed the subject in their columns this week. The main point I wish to make is the extraordinary parity of messages coming from two entities that allegedly have no connection.
We don’t know where Ethical Oil’s funding derives from – it’s certainly not from $10 grassroots donations! – but here’s what we do know about the connections of this organization and its spokespeople to the federal Conservative government:
1. Ezra Levant is the former publisher of the conservative magazine the Western Standard, author of the book Ethical Oil and host of a political talk show on the Sun News Network. He is also the man who stepped aside for Stephen Harper in a 2002 byelection in Calagry Southwest so that the new Alliance Party leader could win a seat in parliament. Levant was apparently reluctant to do so at first, but eventually ceded to public pressure – thus doing a big favour for the future Prime Minister.
Prior to that bit of political gallantry, Levant had a long history of campaigning for key Reform/Alliance candidates. According to Wikipedia, “While he was a student-at-law, Levant was an active political organizer in the Reform Party, and guided the successful attempts by Rahim Jaffer (as the campaign manager for his nomination in Edmonton-Strathcona and later as his communications-director during the 1997 Federal Election) and Rob Anders to win party nominations. In 1997, he went to Ottawa to work for the Reform Party, becoming a parliamentary aide to party leader Preston Manning and being put in charge of Question Period strategy.”
Mr. Levant has also worked at both the right-wing Fraser Institute and the Charles G. Koch Institute – a think tank sponsored by the Texas oil billionaire family which is one of the leading financial backers of both the Republic Party machine and the oil lobby.
2. Levant resigned his duties as EthicalOil.org spokesperson soon after he launched the book and website, handing the role over to one Alykhan Velshi. A 29-year old lawyer, Velshi has been a top Conservative staffer for a number of years. He served as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s director of parliamentary affairs and communications until the 2011 federal election. Prior to that he worked for then-Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird.
In 2011, Velshi briefly left the Harper Government to lead EthicalOil.org, only to return to Parliament Hill in late fall 2011 as the director of planning for the Prime Minister’s Office, no less.
Mr. Velshi’s mom also recently obtained a plum appointment by Industry Minister Joe Oliver (he who dismissed Enrbridge’s legions of opponents as a handful of environmental radicals in a recent open letter) to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The Opposition was quick to slam the hire as a patronage appointment. NDP MP Charlie Angus told Embassy Magazine, “There are a lot of credible engineers out there, but there’s not a lot of credible engineers whose sons are closely tied to the prime minister, Jason Kenney, and their ethical oil campaign for the tar sands. This is another case of who you know in the PMO.”
3. Mr. Velshi handed off the Ethical Oil baton to a 26-year old conservative law student at the University of Calgary named Kathryn Marshall this past fall. According to the Ottawa Citizen, it turns out Ms. Marshall is married to Hamish Marshall, Harper’s former strategic planning manager.
Watch Marshall get slaughtered by Evan Solomon on Inside Politics (note how Ms. Marshall refuses a dozen times to divulge whether her organization is bankrolled by Enbridge – if you still believe the Ethical Oil argument after watching this, I’m afraid you’re beyond help):
It is also worth noting as an aside that former Conservative minister David Emerson is today helping the Chinese buy into the Tar Sands. In 2009 Mr. Emerson became a member of the International Advisory Council for the Chinese Investment Management Corporation, which recently purchased an $801 million stake in Tar Sands properties near Peace River, Alberta. This on top of a long list of major recent Chinese investments in the Tar Sands. And of, of course, Chinese oil giant Sinopec recently revealed that it was one of 10 companies which ponied up $10 million each to sponsor Enbridge’s campaign to build the Northern Gateway Pipeline – some of the others we know about are major multi-national players based in Europe and the United States. Talk about foreign intervention in Canadian pipeline politics!
You can bet the Ethical Oil crew and Harper Government will carry on with the exact same talking points and revolving door connections, all the while maintaining the right hand has no idea what the left hand is doing.
It’s all just a big coincidence.
And if you believe that I’ve got some pond-front property in northeast Alberta you might like to buy.
Read this outstanding piece by Stephen Hume in the Vancouver Sun, dissecting the argument from the Harper Government and oil lobby, which alleges “foreign billionaires” are unduly influencing the opposition to Enrbidge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline and influencing the National Energy Board’s review of the project. (Jan 9, 2012)
EthicalOil.org, founded by conservative gadfly Ezra Levant, adopts this argument, declaiming against “foreign puppets” like West Coast Environmental Law, Alberta’s Pembina Institute and others challenging expansion of oilsands development, transportation infrastructure and diversified global markets for synthetic crude. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper is on the bandwagon, claiming that foreign money seeks to subvert Canada’s regulatory process.
American foundations have donated about $300 million to such organizations over the last decade or so, therefore these groups must be part of a sinister conspiracy by Americans seeking to influence Canada’s policy agenda.
But wait a minute, if this crude nationalism applies to a few environmental groups, shouldn’t it also apply to other organizations that receive funding from “foreign billionaires?” Enbridge, for example, says it has organized about $100 million in backing from oil industry interests, some of them foreign-owned corporations. Are they trying to hi-jack the regulatory process?…
…The Fraser Institute reports nine per cent of its funding from non-Canadian sources — about the same amount of non-Canadian funding reported by the Pembina Institute — although exactly who the foreign donors to the Fraser Institute might be isn’t listed in annual reports. However, according to a report by Greenpeace using U.S. sources, some comes from American foundations. Another puppet?
Shell Canada, Imperial Oil, British Petroleum Canada, Ultramar Fuels, Enbridge, Sinopec International and so on are all owned and controlled offshore. Are they puppets of foreign billionaires?
If foreign control is a genuine concern for EthicalOil.org, should it turn its attention to Canada’s oil industry? More than 35 per cent of all the assets and more than 40 per cent of the profits from oil and gas extraction and related activities in Canada are under foreign control.
Watch this video from CTV, featuring a discussion with federal industry minister Joe Oliver and a lively debate between representatives of First Nations, environmental groups and the organization “Ethical Oil.” (Jan. 8, 2012)
Read this story from Embassy Magazine on the recent appointment of former top federal Conservative staffer and Ethical Oil spokesperson Alykhan Velshi’s mother to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission – which has led the Opposition to denounce the move as a patronage appointment. (Jan. 6, 2011)
The mother of a top Conservative staffer and former adviser to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is the newest member of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, raising opposition concerns over whether it was a patronage appointment.
Rumina Velshi recently retired from a decades-long career with Ontario Power Generation. She is the mother of Alykhan Velshi, a lawyer in his late 20s from Toronto, who made a name for himself on Parliament Hill over five years on and off as a Conservative staffer.
Most notably, he worked as Mr. Kenney’s director of parliamentary affairs and communications before the 2011 federal election. He defended Mr. Kenney on several controversial topics, including when the federal government blocked outspoken former British MP George Galloway from Canada in March 2009, based on what it believed was his support for the Palestinian group Hamas. Mr. Galloway later filed a lawsuit against Mr. Velshi and his boss, claiming that they had defamed him.
I was on hand last night at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver for the highly-touted debate between Best West, Healthy Communities Campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, and Ezra Levant, author of the new book “Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands.”
The event was a reprise of sorts of the recent throw-down in Calgary between Levant and Andrew Nikiforuk, author of “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.” Despite the rather serious subject matter at hand – the future of the Alberta Tar Sands, climate change, and the relative ethics of dirty oil – the events were enlivened with an air of theatre, replete with a Vegas Fight Night motif.
The Vancouver event was taken in by a nearly packed house – and the crowd got right into the action, often catcalling Levant, the clear antagonist of the evening. Early on, Levant used a pre-packaged but clever come-back to a heckler to introduce his basic thesis: “I love the heckling,” he told the crowd, “because it proves how free we are. If we were in Russia, you wouldn’t be heckling for long before the FSB came and got you.” He concluded, “That’s Canada: the fair-trade coffee of the world’s oil industry.”
Whether you agree with Mr. Levant’s argument – essentially that Alberta Tar Sands oil is the lesser of two evils when compared with the black stuff from Saudi Arabia or the Sudan – or not, he deserves some credit for walking into territory hostile to climate change denying, Milton Friedman-loving types. The “People’s Republic of East Van,” as it was introduced, is a long way from Fort MacMurray.
I was there more to see Levant than Ben West, a friend and colleague with whom my own views are naturally more aligned than his opponent, the Tar Sands apostle. I always appreciate good oratory – and Mr. Levant is certainly capable int that department – and I was curious to hear firsthand how he frames his defence of the Tar Sands.
Levant is a Calgary-educated lawyer and conservative political activist who founded the right-wing magazine and now exclusively online journal, The Western Standard. He has worked closely with Preston Manning and was the Conservative Party nominee for Calgary Centre who made way for Stephen Harper when he needed a solid riding in which to make his first Prime Ministerial bid. Event moderator and Georgia Straight reporter Charlie Smith elicited another round of theatrical boos for Levant when he pointed this out to the crowd in his introduction.
Throughout the evening, West, an able, witty debater himself, framed his opponent as some variation of a “hitman for the free market”. But when moderator Smith posed what I thought was the most important question of the evening – essentially what is the book and its author’s relationship with the oil lobby – Levant claimed none whatsoever. I too had been curious about this question. Having read a few reviews of Levant’s book, I couldn’t help but note the similarity in timing and message to the broad-based multi-million dollar co-ordinated PR offensive now underway to burnish the Tar Sands – or Oil Sands as they are careful to call them – by the industry and Alberta and Canadian governments.
I think beginning with National Geographic’s stunning front cover visual exposé of the Tar Sands not quite two years ago, the world’s biggest industrial operation has been getting pummeled on the image front, to the point it now sports a big shiner, apropos the evening’s fight theme.
This coordinated effort to fight back against a deluge of bad press has included a series of ads from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) featuring Tar Sands employees playing up technological advances and minimizing their employers’ environmental impacts. My favourite is the one where the Syncrude engineer walking through a sparse patch of four foot-tall poplars informs us his company has cleaned up something like 1,000 hectares of mining grounds (out of hundreds of thousands), before pausing for an impromptu moment of remediated wilderness magic: “Look – there’s two squirrels playing on that branch!” The squirrels are, naturally, off-camera – but we’ll take his word for it.
There have also been billboard ads in New York, paid for by the Alberta tax payer, that claim, “A good neighbour lends you a cup of sugar; A great neighbour provides you with 1.4 million barrels of oil a day.” Finally, there’s the recent series of high-profile whirlwind junkets by top US lawmakers and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, all delivering the same message: “Hey, these Alberta Oil Sands ain’t that bad after all.” The whole offensive is based on two central themes: 1. Downplaying environmental impacts, partly by up-selling technological advancements; and 2. Assuring us Alberta oil is safer than Middle East, Venezuelan, and Sudanese Oil – from a national security perspective.
These two themes, particularly the last one, are also central to Levant’s schtick – which is why Charlie Smith’s question was warranted. Did Levant get paid to do this book by CAPP or Syncrude?
According to Levant, absolutely not. He got the idea for the book, he says, following a speech to a bunch of regular folks in Alberta, concerned about the same things this Vancouver crowd was – the environment, health, jobs. He found his right-wing business angle wasn’t connecting with them, so he thought he’d try again, on a level they could relate to.
He says he got paid $40,000 by publisher McLelland & Stewart and had no contact with the oil industry whatsoever during the writing of the book (which begs the question how he was able to conduct his research). Perhaps Mr. Smith should have posed a follow-up question: “Will you accept money from the oil industry in the future?”
Mr. Levant has four major criteria for judging the ethical quotient of a given oil source: the environment, peace and conflict, economic justice, and the treatment of minorities. For each of these categories, he scores the Tar Sands comparably higher than other major oil producing nations – as he explained in often colourful language:
The bastards, dictators, misogynists, and terrorists have the oil. The Saudis brought us 9/11. Iran is using their oil profits to build a nuclear bomb. We’re the only good guys…If you give a damn about women, gay people, aboriginal people (because the Tar Sands is their biggest employer), peace, and economic justice for working people, then you should support Alberta Oil.
As for concerns raised by West and members of the audience, Levant had pat, if not convincing, rebuttals for most. He downplayed the infamous duck fatalities in tailings ponds – “I eat 50 chicken wings on a Friday night at the pub.” Dr. John O’Connor, who rang alarm bells over the health of aboriginal people in Fort Chipewyan, was dismissed as “a liar.”
Levant’s also not a big believer in man-made climate change: “Anyone who knows there was an ice age – and knows we’re not presently in one – should be able to recognize that the earth warms and cools on natural cycles.” Touché.
Finally, to tell the world’s emerging economies, such as China, that they shouldn’t embrace oil-dependant car culture as we have is, in itself, “unethical.”
Ben West hit all the right notes with his response to Levant – and kept up in the theatre and humour department, not an easy task with Levant. His closing statement took the form of a poem, framed as an intervention: “Ezra, we brought you here because you have an addiction and we want to help you…”
Put on the spot, West focused on alternatives to oil – such as conservation, clean alternate energy technologies, electrified public transit, and walkable communities. He called for an end to oil and gas subsidies – which is one of the strongest arguments against these supposed “free market” guys. And he brought it down to a local level when he suggested British Columbians have an opportunity and a responsibility to deal with the Tar Sands by stopping two major pipelines from Alberta – the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline to Kitimat, and the proposed expansion of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline to Vancouver. To this end, in his closing statement, Levant repeated his mantra, “If you kill the Enbridge pipeline, then you’re forcing China to get its oil from less ethical sources.”
Levant’s routine – regardless of his professed independence from the massive PR campaign to save the Tar Sands’ image – is basically a more entertaining, frank, and at times clever version of those CAPP commercials and Stelmach billboards.
It’s surprisingly unsophisticated and built upon a foundation of non-sequitur arguments…But George Bush got re-elected on a national security platform – a draft dodger running against a bona fide war hero, no less – after demonstrably lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Which goes to show you that arguments don’t need to be smart or true to work.
The fact is these people don’t have the benefit of a naturally good argument – so they must do the best with what they have. And on that front, I wouldn’t count them out. Any PR guru will tell you, pick a simple message and stick to it. And wherever possible, use fear as the primary motivator – you know, like Al Queda and Iranian nukes. Moreover, whether or not this argument works in Canada is less crucial than whether it works in the United Sates. And we’ve seen how effectively the “national security card” can be played there.
It will be interesting to see where the debate – and Levant, for that matter – goes from here. In any event, it made for an informative and entertaining battle at the Rio last night.
Sunday at the Plaza Theatre, a sold-out crowd of about 300 (with
about 40 turned away at the door), packed the old movie house to watch a
debate on the oilsands between Nikiforuk, the author of tar Sands:
Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, and Levant, the author of
Ethical Oil. It was hosted (or refereed) by CBC morning man Jim Brown, who
provided Michael Buffer-like basso profundo to the proceedings, in
addition to his genial, witty presence. (I have expected him to announce
the combatants’s weights and then to say, “Let’s get ready to
rummmmmmmble!”) Read more of Clagary Herald article here