Secret Agreement between Environmental Groups and Oil Companies Marks the End of an Era

Dru Oja Jay
Dec 4, 2015 · 6 min read
The compromises of funder-driven secret deals are on the way out. Photo: Dru Oja Jay

(Version français ici.)

“For traditional conservationists, it was a little like finding out that Amnesty International had opened its own prison wing in Guantanamo.” That’s how Naomi Klein described the Nature Conservancy’s decision to allow oil drilling on land it was conserving to protect an endangered bird in 1999.

My, how things have changed!

Since then, Amnesty International-branded prisons — or at least their environmental equivalent — have become de rigeur among well-funded NGOs. That trend reached a kind of turning point last week, when the Financial Post revealed that four prominent Canadian Environmental groups sat in secret negotiations with oil companies for months, and — according to the report — agreed to stop campaigning against certain tar sands pipelines in exchange for the tepid climate measures Alberta’s NDP government announced at the end of November. The problem: the NDP’s measures allow for a 40% increase in tar sands extraction, and flout the consensus among climate scientists about what is needed to prevent “game over for the climate”.

In the interceding years, Canada has seen two major agreements between corporations and environmentalists.

The Great Bear Rainforest Agreement started as a huge battle between environmentalists and First Nations on one side and logging companies on the other. The agreement itself happened when funders turned off the tap and the major environmental groups joined secret negotiations with logging companies. The result was a major capitulation to logging companies presented to the public as a victory. Because major green groups switched sides, the odds that resistance to continued logging could be effective went from improbable to impossible. Facing off against Weyerhaeuser is one thing; facing off against Weyerhaeuser and Greenpeace, Sierra Club and ForestEthics is quite another.

In 2009, Macdonald Stainsby and I wrote a report about the GBR deal called Offsetting Resistance, in which we warned: “the plan for the tar sands campaign is emerging along the same lines as the ‘Great Bear Rainforest’ deal, and include many of the same players and tactics.”

Perhaps to their credit, environmentalists have not spent a lot of time feuding publicly about these differences when it comes to the GBR.

But in 2010, major political and strategic divergences were highlighted when a number of Canadian groups signed the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, which notably excluded First Nations. This time, a lot more people raised a fuss.

Journalist Dawn Paley brought these voices to the fore with several hard-hitting reports.

“I think that, if anything, the CBFA has resulted in an immense fracturing, not only in the ENGO sector, but also among First Nations,” Clayton Thomas-Muller, who was then tar sands campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network, told Paley at the time.

Many suggestions of a tar sands agreement were already surfacing in 2010. While it was clear that there was little appetite for a deal with oil companies on either side, funder pressure ensured that the idea stayed alive.

In 2013, Paley published a report raising the same warning: that environmental groups were gearing up for a similar deal in the tar sands. Tzeporah Berman — who was a key architect of the Great Bear and Boreal deals — responded in a public Facebook post, writing “I am so tired of these attacks that have no basis in fact.”

The 2015 version — tar sands edition — of the secret agreement has finally been unveiled. According to the Financial Post:

In addition to [Environmental Defense executive director Tim] Gray, environmental leaders that participated in the discussions were Karen Mahon, Forest Ethics Canada Director; Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute; and Steven Guilbeault, senior director and founder of Equiterre.

Unlike the previous pair of secret deals, none of these groups appear to have wanted their involvement to become public. More than a week elapsed with no suggestion that any groups had agreed to stop their anti-pipeline organizing.

ForestEthics, which jumped to the front of the protests against the Kinder Morgan pipeline after paying little attention to efforts to stop the pipeline for years, even sent emails asking for donations after the showdown at Burnaby Mountain.

Tzeporah Berman, who is the main representative of US funders of anti-tar sands work, made no mention of the concessions in a December 1st opinion piece that lauded the Alberta government for their leadership. She did, however, drop a king-size hint that some groups would let one or more pipelines slide:

We created the political space for a government to do the right thing. Does this mean they still want a pipeline? Probably. But they sure don’t need four of them now.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, Berman and the four environmental organizations will face some tough questions from their constituencies. Will ForestEthics use its position to allow Kinder Morgan to proceed while blocking Northern Gateway? Will Equiterre look the other way on either Line 9 or Energy East? Will Environmental Defense drop its work against Line 9 in Ontario?

Most crucially: did these groups agree (as some did in previous secret agreements) to try to convince other environmental actors to stop opposing pipelines?

With the Boreal Forest Agreement, for example, the environmental partners agreed to help the logging companies market their products as eco-friendly. This created a situation where communities that wanted to stop logging on their lands didn’t just have to oppose multinational giants like Weyerhauser, but also environmental organizations that are household names. First Nations communities were effectively pitted against each other.

When it comes to the tar sands, the public is too well-informed to accept overblown ENGO claims that a forest has been “saved”. The rhetoric, this time around, is much more tortured.

What’s different about this secret agreement is how many groups are going be working in ways that are directly at odds with the secret agreement. Some have been straightforward about rejecting the detente. “The only way that we stop fighting pipelines is when we stop pipelines,” campaigner Cameron Fenton told the Financial Post.

It’s too early to declare the death of the funder-driven corporate-collaboration dealmaking, but it’s not too early to declare its decline. Climate justice activists have long rejected the paradigm of ramping up a big campaign in order to “make a deal” on a five year horizon so that funders can move on to the next thing. This deal will galvanize that conviction.

While some very wealthy foundations are still keen to push the secret agreement paradigm, divisions are showing among the ranks of funders as well. It’s with serendipitous timing that a day before news of the secret agreement dropped, Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation published a long article enjoining donors to provide long-term funding to communities resisting climate-killing projects and building alternatives. He also asked them to do nothing less than give up the control that leads to secret agreements:

A truly just transition will require long-term work, and long-term work will require long-term commitments from the philanthropic community. Long-term funding commitments don’t just give organizations the runway to do the work — they also free them from the annual ritual of re-application. In a culture that often fetishizes “risk,” I propose that this is an important way for funders to take on greater risk — by allocating more of our budgets long-term — on behalf of the social movements that we aim to support.

The willingness of prominent environmental groups to secretly put themselves at odds with other campaigns — and scientific consensus — is no longer as shocking as it was in 1999. It is, however, more likely now than at any point since then to be unacceptable to donors and volunteers.

We warned of a secret tar sands deal in 2009, and many worked hard to stop it in the interceding years. In the end, we got an unsatisfying compromise: the deal wasn’t as big a deal as we said it would be, but it still happened.

This seems like a good time to close the book on eight years of this particular thread of NGO- and funder-critiquing journalism. It hasn’t been particularly fun, but it will probably continue to be necessary. I’ll end with one last fearless prediction: the secret agreement model will go out with a whimper, not a bang.

Movements have transformation in their sights, and they’re less and less interested in declaring pitiful “victories” and moving on. We want it all: a liveable planet, equal distribution of sustainably-harvested wealth, decolonization of control over lands, and democratic organizations that reflect those goals. Leaving the bulk of the remaining tar sands in the ground by stopping all of the proposed pipelines is the first necessary step.

Dru Oja Jay is co-author of the report Offsetting Resistance: The effects of foundation funding from the Great Bear Rainforest to the Athabasca River and co-author of the book Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism.