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Outside agitators and traitors: big oil's war on environmentalists

John Bell

August 7, 2019

Capitalism is intrinsically entwined with fossil fuel power and production. Wars are fought in its interests, governments brush aside human rights to serve it. Any idea that ‘the market” can overcome its suicidal contradictions–endless competition for profit–is absurd. The slogan “System Change Not Climate Change” is not just rhetoric. 

A more resolute environmental movement is growing to reflect the existential nature of the crisis. This is the same generation that is turning to the ideas of socialism for solutions. It is led by young people who are unimpressed by political rank and power. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager has become a face of the movement, but there are millions like her. The youth have called for strikes to save the climate in September. Most places will walk out September 20; in Canada the chosen date is September 27. 

Especially in Britain a new direct action movement has formed under the banner of Extinction Rebellion (XR). Throughout the summer XR activists are risking jail, disrupting traffic in major cities. Tory politicians are calling for more arrests and stiffer penalties, but polls show high levels of public support.

The section of the ruling class that depends on trade in oil is freaking out. OPEC General Secretary Mohammed Barkindo warns that the youth rebellion is “perhaps the greatest threat to our industry going forward”. 

"[T]here is a growing mass mobilization of world opinion... against oil…. Civil society is being misled to believe oil is the cause of climate change.” Barkindo, from Nigeria, maintains the lie that there is no connection between fossil fuel combustion and climate change. Politicians in other oil producing jurisdictions face a tougher audience: large portions of their electorate believe that climate change is an emergency, and to simply deny its existence would be political suicide.

Criminalizing dissent

Jason Kenney, Alberta’s new premier, is a climate change denier at heart. But even he has to acknowledge the reality of the crisis. What is a politician to do while pursuing tar sands development at a dangerous pace? He can paper over environmental destruction with a veneer of patriotic imperative, and he can work to slander and criminalize opposition.

One of the first acts of Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government was to promise an inquiry into funding of the environmental movement. He set up a “war room”: “Its mandate will be to respond in real time with the truth about our energy sector through paid, earned, and social media. It will coordinate activities across the government, engaging ministers and other spokespeople to proactively communicate that message, and so there will be an app. There will be advertising campaigns.”

Kenney has devoted $30 million of public funds to fight his war against environmentalists. (By comparison Rachel Notley’s NDP government spent $23 million in 2018 on public relations for the Alberta oil industry.) The main tactic will be to amplify the oil industry line, that environmentalists are at best dupes of a foreign conspiracy to keep Canadian oil out of the market, and at worst outright traitors to the national interest.

It’s an old refrain from the offices of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). Tar sands enthusiasts like W. Brett Wilson–TV capitalist and member of Alberta’s Petroleum Hall of Fame–labels environmental activists “eco-terrorists” and calls for them to be hanged for treason.  Former PM Stephen Harper accused a foreign funded environmental movement of “highjacking” the Northern Gateway Pipeline hearings. This crime consisted in having an unprecedented number of environmental and Indigenous groups united in testifying against the pipeline project.

Joe Oliver was Harper’s Minister of Natural Resources. It was his job to lead a public relations assault against this new coalition. His 2012 Open Letter summed up the Harper approach–to vilify environmental organizations by any means necessary.  He wrote: “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade.  Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry.  No mining.  No oil.  No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.”

This cut to the core of the Tory project, as envisioned by Harper’s mentor, Professor Tom Flanagan of the University of Calgary. The job was monumental: to undo decades of history; to shift from public services and a social safety net to privately delivered services; from a national ethos of peacekeeping to militarism; from a “balanced” industrial economy centred on auto production to resource extraction, especially full exploitation of the Alberta tar sands. Recall the 2006 speech to global financial nabobs in which Harper crowed about Canada becoming the new “energy superpower”.  

The big obstacle to this oily neo-liberal wet dream was as Flanagan warned, the danger of solidarity between Indigenous people, organized labour and environmentalists. So the strategy was to divide these groups. The tactics included: spending millions to co-opt a pliable section of Indigenous leadership; passing laws to weaken and disorganize unions; and to discredit the environmental movement in the eyes of the Canadian public.

And at the core of all this, government and petro-industry shills repeated without end that developing the vast Alberta bitumen deposits was an essential act of nation-building, a patriotic duty.

Liberal PM Justin Trudeau has proved to be almost as dogged in defending the Alberta tar sands as his Tory predecessor. In 2018 he has devoted $4.5 billion to bail out the Trans Mountain Pipeline project and an additional $7.4 billion to subsidize new development in the tar sands. Although not shy about promoting the grand scheme as an exercise in nation-building, Trudeau had the audacity to portray investing in one of the most destructive megaprojects on Earth  as an environmental advance. 

“In order to be able to protect our environment, we do need to be able to have a strong and growing economy,” Trudeau said while bailing out the pipeline project. “That's why our plan to fight climate change features both a national price on pollution, things like the world class oceans protection plan, but also getting our oil resources to new markets through responsible pipelines.” 

Not to be outdone, Kenney’s new UCP government slashed corporate tax rates from 12% to 8%. That amounts to a $2 billion windfall for petro-corporations, in addition to the tax breaks and subsidies they already get from provincial and federal governments. 


A freedom of information suit brought by the BC Civil Liberties Association has confirmed that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has a long record of colluding with the National Energy Board and oil and gas corporations, spying on environmental organizations such as the Council of Canadians, Leadnow, and the Dogwood Initiative. They are also accused of intimidating activists.

CSIS had fought the disclosure through the courts. They deny any wrong doing. But BCCLA spokesperson Megan McDermott asked: "If CSIS claims it wasn't tracking conservation groups in B.C., then why did they collect thousands of pages of files on groups who engaged in peaceful advocacy and protest?" Kenneyrants conspiracy theories about environmentalists “with a highly successful, deliberate, well-organized and hugely well-funded campaign of defamation” meant to “land lock Canadian energy”.  The “proof” is the existence of international funding in support of groups like the Suzuki Institute, Greenpeace and others. These groups admit they receive support from outside Canada, but the majority of their funding comes in the form of small contributions from individuals. 

Kenney’s attempt to discredit opponents of tar sands and pipelines, based on foreign funds, is a desperate ploy doom to fail.  The tar sands are awash in foreign money. Some of it is from the US, China, and even Middle East oil producers like Yemen. More is spent on lobbying on behalf of far-right billionaires like the Koch brothers.

Even tar sands cheerleader Rebel Media receives foreign funding to support its pro-pipeline, pro-Kenney coverage. Rebel Media is where pro-tar sands politics and white nationalism intersect. Tying tar sands exploitation to patriotic duty is essentially an exercise in environmental racism. No wonder concerns from Indigenous communities are swept aside.

Koch brothers cash and Jason Kenney conspiracy theories versus the increasingly desperate facts of climate crisis. A dying and deadly industry versus a new generation of environmentalists. On September 27 we need to see the kind of solidarity that terrifies Jason Kenney, the Koch brothers and oil corporation executives everywhere.  Young activists, Indigenous leaders and striking workers acting together–this points the way to rein in climate change. If we are to stop climate chaos it will be this alliance, armed with the ideas of socialism, which will lead the way.

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