Opposition to Canadian oil and gas pipelines has grown into an international environmental protest industry from a modest 2008 beginning as “The Tar Sands Campaign,” according to an Alberta government inquiry into foreign funding of home-grown fossil fuel foes.

The 657-page Report of the Public Inquiry Into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns found that C$1.28 billion ($1 billion) in documented cross-border support for the resistance movement is “likely understated” given slack disclosure rules.

Inquiry commissioner J. Stephens Allan wrote that the two-year, C$3.5million ($2.8 million) investigation detected no illegal activity. However, he stressed that campaigning nonprofit groups and charities contend with far fewer regulations than oil and gas pipeline companies.

“The movement and the organizations that are part of it appear to function much like an industry unto themselves, attracting various sources of funding and employing large personnel and capital to promote their objectives,” said Allan.

“Many of them have had a history of moving from cause to cause, from salmon farming, to forestry, to water, to oil and gas, to agriculture. There is no doubt these are all important issues to humanity, but these organizations sustain and grow themselves and their management with brilliant marketing campaigns.”

Suspicious Cross-Border Cash

The report and a supplementary analysis by Deloitte Forensic Inc. traced links among 16 U.S. foundations and 31 Canadian organizations, using 2000-2018 tax returns to map money trails. Foreign aid to the Canadian groups over the 19-year period ranged from C$76,979-$429 million ($61,583-$343 million), the investigation found.

The use of cross-border cash earmarked for Canadian environmental activities remains a mystery. 

“I was ultimately not able to trace with precision the quantum of foreign funding applied to anti-Alberta energy campaigns,” said Allan. “This is due in large part to the fungible nature of money — once funds are deployed to an organization in some manner, they are deployed to advance the mission and campaigns of the organization, which are often varied and complex, and cannot be readily traced to any particular activity or initiative.”

Allan attributed Canadian oilsands and pipeline foes’ ability to delay projects to an “effective network” that has demonstrated “commitment to collaboration and alignment.” He also said the industry has been an architect of its own misfortune by lacking the unity of its foes.

“Industry associations, think tanks, and governments, although they may have had similar goals and objectives, were not aligned; did not collaborate, and instead worked in silos,” Allan said. “They were understandably focused on advancing the goals and objectives of their own organizations, but from a governance perspective, they failed to recognize an existential threat to the industry in which they operated.”

The Alberta inquiry’s top recommendation hinges on making better information available about environmental organizations, nonprofit groups and charitable foundations by toughening financial accountability requirements.

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage agreed.

“While industry is highly regulated, closely monitored and must be open and transparent with respect to their financial reporting, many of the same requirements do not exist for not-for-profits or charities,” Savage said. 

“We need to take the report’s findings, learn from the tactics employed and ensure that foreign funding does not target the development of the emerging energy resources.” Those resources include hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization and storage, along with critical and rare earth minerals, small modular reactors and liquefied natural gas, “which are needed to reduce emissions and diversify Alberta’s economy.”

Among environmental groups that figured in Allan’s report, Ecojustice and the Pembina Institute called the inquiry a waste and the estimated total of foreign funding for industry opponents “a rounding error” compared to oil and pipeline investment. Campaigning to tame climate change by curbing fossil fuels will continue, said the groups.