This is part three of a four-part series, in which Canada’s National Observer presents a data-based dismantling of the false claim that Alberta’s oil and gas sector has been targeted by a cabal of American foundations.
When Jason Kenney claims, without evidence, that Alberta’s oilsands have been targeted by a cabal of American philanthropic foundations, he speaks with the confidence of someone who thinks his claims are unfalsifiable, impossible to disprove. And he’s cynically betting that Canadians, unwilling or unable to investigate the matter on their own, will give him the benefit of the doubt.
But he’s wrong. His claims are, in fact, falsifiable. We know this because we examined them: After nine months spent investigating public charity records on Candid, America's most comprehensive foundation and charitable monitoring site, we found that every core tenet of the foreign-funding conspiracy theory is false. And, in this four-part series, we will prove it by systematically debunking nine key myths associated with Kenney’s scare-mongering rhetoric.
Myth 4: U.S.-based foundations, led by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, have made Alberta a central focus of their strategy.
This theory suffers from Alberta-centric self-absorption, as do others.
Even with the funders of the Tar Sands Campaign, Alberta and Canada are very low priorities. They're just not that into us.
Over the last decade, the Tar Sands Campaign got a whopping 0.3 per cent its major funders' total grants budget. That number barely counts as a rounding error.
And it's falling.
Today, the largest American funder of Canadian pipeline opposition contributes a mere $400,000 a year on average. For perspective, $400,000 barely covers a week's income for Calgary’s top paid executive.
Here are the true facts.
Since 2009 the campaign's three anchor foundation funders, the Hewlett and Oak foundations and RBF, granted fully $7 billion worldwide in all categories. They granted more than $750 million to American climate projects, and just $22 million to Canadian anti-pipeline groups.
Global budget of major TSC funders by subject (2009-2020)
From what can be discerned from Candid's data, the remaining funders appear to be a plethora of smaller, socially progressive American foundations, granting intermittently in five and six figure amounts.
And while the RBF was an early supporter of the Tar Sands Campaign, it was never a financial leader.
The campaign's largest and most influential donor is — or more accurately, was — the philanthropic giant, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The pre-eminent climate philanthropy in the world, Hewlett is distinguished by highly professional arms-length management and governance. Its president, Larry Kramer, is the former dean of Stanford Law.
Hewlett pursues a multi-pronged strategy of promoting climate solutions. As outlined by climate strategy grantmaker Erin Rogers, Hewlett seeks to build political will through support of grassroots citizen movements with political advocacy expertise. The foundation has granted pipeline opponents approximately $8-9 million between 2008-12, or almost $2 million a year.
Significantly, they've granted a further $460 million to American climate projects since 2009, and $4 billion worldwide in all categories. Hewlett's grants to pipeline opponents since 2009 comprise just 0.25 per cent of all its funding.
Tellingly, Hewlett concluded its pipeline opposition funding with an exit grant in 2016, after Rachel Notley introduced her climate plan.
The second largest Tar Sands funder isn't a Rockefeller, either.
Even worse for the conspiracy theory, they aren't even American. With annual grants of about $1 million over the last decade, the Geneva-based Oak Foundation partnered with Hewlett to provide almost half the funding of the Tar Sands Campaign over the last decade.
Like Hewlett, with whom they collaborate on major international climate projects, Oak ranks in the top five climate funders in the world. Like Hewlett, they allocate very substantial funding — $250 million — to American-based climate initiatives, out of $2.6 billion in total grants since 2009.
The Oak Foundation is the most closely held family foundation among major climate funders, with a board dominated by environmentalist family members. Founded by British billionaire Alan Parker and his wife, Jette, who remain active on the board, its chair is their son Dr. Kristian Parker, a marine biologist who holds a doctorate in environmental sciences. Interviewed in 2016, he outlined the importance of shifting public opinion on climate change as a key driver of Oak's funding strategy.
To find the Rockefellers, supposedly the masterminds of this conspiracy, you have to go all the way down to a distant third-place funder. The Rockefeller group of foundations make an interesting case, because family members in leadership positions have taken an unusually activist stance specifically relating to fossil fuels and climate change.
They consciously point to the source of their family wealth as the founders of Standard Oil, originally the largest oil company in the world and the parent of today's ExxonMobil, as a motivating factor.
As Valerie Rockefeller Wayne, the chair of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund puts it, their family members "all have a moral obligation. Our family in particular — the money that is for our grant-making, and what we are doing now, and that helps fund our lifestyles, came from dirty fuel sources.”
RBF has granted an average $400,000 annually since 2009. That's a total of $4 million out of $400 million in all categories worldwide. RBF granted $75 million to American climate projects.
Further, though the Tar Sands Campaign has not disclosed its full financial picture, fund advisor Tzeporah Berman reports that since Canada signed onto the Paris Accord, grant levels declined by about 65 per cent from their peak.
Extrapolating from known volumes, this suggests the international sources of campaign revenues have fallen below $2 million annually.
That’s frankly immaterial to American energy interests.
As should be plain, these are not the profile of scheming conspirators.
The only rational explanation for this spending pattern is that international foundations supporting the Tar Sands Campaign are exactly what they present themselves to be: philanthropic organizations deeply motivated to support legal challenges and grassroots action on climate change.
Here's the part that's true: Canadian environmentalists do unapologetically seek to suppress Alberta oil, driven by the unforgiving math of carbon emissions. If we exploit all known carbon reserves, the climate impact will be catastrophic. Consequently, some known reserves must stay in the ground, while others should be minimized and phased out over time.
Activists everywhere are pressing this cause, though as we can see in North America, to little effect.
Nothing about this initiative disproportionately targets Alberta — the effort is global and co-ordinated.
Myth 5: The Tar Sands Campaign is directed out of San Francisco by an organization called CorpEthics International, and its principal, Michael Marx.
An example of how a false story is repeated and amplified through media coverage is the CorpEthics saga.
It’s been repeatedly claimed that CorpEthics, a registered U.S. charity run by Michael Marx, has directed the Tar Sands Campaign from San Francisco for the last decade, even influencing the 2015 Alberta and Canadian elections.
In fact, CorpEthics is not a large organization secretly manipulating Canadians; it’s the website of a home-based consulting business.
Candid's data and publicly available tax returns reveal that it has no employees, no associates and no office. CorpEthics has been inactive as a charitable enterprise for several years, and has had nothing to do with the Canadian Tar Sands Campaign since 2011.
It's a shell that Michael Marx appears to use as his billing entity for his consulting business.
The controversy started when Marx treated the CorpEthics website something like a Tinder profile, posting grandiose claims that it had successfully blocked the approval of all major pipelines in North America and influenced elections in Canada.
This blatant self-promotion suckered a gullible researcher, then was picked up nationally by the CBC, Postmedia and talk radio across the country.
The CBC aired the claims on the national broadcast, The Weekly with Wendy Mesley, as if they were true, complete with ominous music and dramatic visuals.
That CorpEthics’ claims were false would have been plain to anyone who took the time to check their online tax returns or even talk to Michael Marx himself.
Reached by telephone, Marx confirmed that CorpEthics had a significant role advising and distributing grants to the Canadian Tar Sands Campaign only in its early days, from 2008-2011. Berman has occupied the role of fund advisor since 2011, and Marx has had nothing to do with the campaign since that time.
The Tar Sands Campaign is Canadian and Indigenous-organized and run. According to Berman, she co-ordinates grant allocation in consultation with dozens of Indigenous and Canadian environmental organizations, then directs distributions from pooled funds hosted at Tides or the New Ventures Fund.
Myth 6: Tides is the 'funding and co-ordination juggernaut' behind anti-pipeline activism.
By the way, have you noticed how many secret juggernauts there are? This one doesn't work either.
The U.S. Tides Foundation has not donated a dime to the Tar Sands Campaign.
You read that right, here it is again.
Tides U.S. has not donated a dime of its own money to the Tar Sands Campaign.
This is confirmed by Berman, who possesses all campaign financial data. Nor, according to Berman, does Tides U.S. co-ordinate, control or have any role directing the campaign.
Its alleged role in pipeline opposition funding is literally the stuff of myth. Tides U.S. is a perfect example of statistical noise. Here's why.
In reality, Tides is not a conventional granting foundation, but acts largely as a donor-advised-fund manager, administering and processing funds of other charitable foundations. It's true function relative to the Tar Sands Campaign is effectively that of a bank, where it facilitates fund transfers on behalf of other foundations. Essentially, it's a conduit.
Tides routinely manages funds and distributes grants for a platinum A-list of global philanthropies, such as the Gates, Ford and Susan Thompson Buffett foundations. This is a wholly standard industry practice in the philanthropic world, where, according to Candid, almost 90 per cent of large international gifts are processed on this model.
DAFs are employed where funding is pooled from multiple foundations or sources, for time-limited initiatives, or to avoid the prohibitive cost of setting up a standalone charity.
Think of it this way. If your employer pays you out of their RBC account, does that make you RBC-funded?
That's basically the extent of Tides' relationship to the Tar Sands Campaign.
Although it's administered millions in Tar Sands Campaign grants, Tides hasn't donated any of its own funds to the campaign or had any oversight role at all.
The expression "Tides-funded," which has for years been a form of disparagement in Canada, is grossly inaccurate.
So, to sum up, nothing whatsoever is out of the ordinary in pipeline opposition.
No one is targeting Alberta. No one is focused on Alberta, not even the biggest funders of the Tar Sands Campaign. The most that can be said is that they haven't excluded Alberta.
Next, in Part 4: Exposing the Canadian oil sector’s victim complex, giving overdue credit to Indigenous and environmental activists, and drawing conclusions.
Other installments in the series:
Part 1: Jason Kenney foreign-funding conspiracy theory is false -- and we can prove it
Part 2: Alberta is the 'whipping boy' of foreign philanthropy and other myths
Part 4: Exposing the Canadian oil sector’s victim complex, giving overdue credit to Indigenous and environmental activists, and drawing conclusions.