Attacks on environmental group supporters are disingenuous and disturbing

Blog - Dec. 12, 2011 - By Ed Whittingham

Yesterday the reputation of the Pembina Institute and that of the British government was attacked in a column by Kathryn Marshall, a professional oilsands booster. It doesn’t seem too much to ask of someone who regularly writes commentary in the news media to do a little fact checking. However, this basic journalistic standard appears to have escaped Marshall, as her commentary repeats many misleading or downright false statements about the Pembina Institute and the nature of our work.

For instance, if Marshall had done her research, she would have discovered the Pembina Institute does not have an "anti-oilsands bias." As a rural Alberta-bred organization, we've spent 18 years proudly working together with industry, government and non-profit colleagues to develop and advocate for more responsible oilsands development.

In the last two decades, we've been part of all the major planning processes and groups, participated in all the major development hearings, and have collaborated directly with most of the major producers on environmental management improvements through our consulting work (business that we earn, by the way, through our long track record of offering top-tier technical and management advice.)

We are a vocal critic of industry and government when evidence shows that development is not taking place in an ecologically responsible manner and impacts are not being managed adequately. But we always aim to make our criticism constructive, and have built a reputation as an organization that is ready to come to the table with our minds open, our sleeves rolled up, and solutions in hand throughout those 18 years.

Marshall also alleges that the UK government is funding "anti-oilsands campaigns." Nothing could be further from the truth. The British High Commission funded our research evaluating the employment opportunities created through clean energy polices. That research found that Canada's government could have created more jobs by investing in clean energy development rather than through the projects it funded with its economic stimulus spending. The High Commission provided funding to promote healthy dialogue around green jobs in Canada, and did not have any kind of editorial license or control over the content or conclusions of our work.

The High Commission also provided support to help us convene a dialogue between industry leaders and environmental groups around market-based solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. The knee-jerk reaction of our critics to last week’s news reports about the High Commission’s funding demonstrates that this kind of solutions-based dialogue is still sorely needed in Canada.

The reality is those, like Marshall, who specialize in polarizing the debate over energy issues and defending the status quo don't like it when think-tanks such as the Pembina Institute suggest that Canada needs to proactively address the impacts of energy development, and prepare for the global transition to more renewable and low-carbon sources of energy.

She must really not like it when pragmatic leaders like Alison Redford, Alberta's new premier, say things like this in her leadership platform: "Hydrocarbons will not remain the world’s fuel of choice forever and Alberta must be prepared for the spread of alternative sources. We need to leverage revenues from today’s energy sources to ensure that Alberta remains a leader when the shift to renewables occurs on a large scale." I think Premier Redford wisely and prudently is interested in the long-term competitiveness of the Alberta economy, but to Marshall she must be just another foreign-backed anti-oilsands campaigner.

But what is perhaps most troubling about Marshall’s arguments against the Pembina Institute is the subtle but dangerous xenophobia that underlies her commentary. She suggests that Pembina relies on "foreign money" for our work to promote sustainable energy solutions like responsible oilsands development, and that using "foreign money" means that our work "doesn't represent Canadians."

Marshall uses the word "foreign" in a pejorative way, like it's nefarious or un-Canadian. On the contrary, I'm proud of how the Pembina Institute sources our hard-earned revenue. For example, roughly 45 per cent of our $5 million annual revenue comes from our consulting work, through which we provide advice to federal, provincial and municipal governments and companies on management practices and strategies for sustainability. Since many of our corporate clients are Fortune 500 transnational companies, listed on both Canadian and U.S. stock exchanges, does that make their money "foreign," unrepresentative of Canadians and therefore bad? Perhaps in Marshall's parochial world it does. By extension, then, should Canada be preventing foreign-owned companies from extracting Canadian oil? The same logic would seem to apply.

Equally troubling is that Marshall is not alone in her anti-globalization bias. It's been sad to see how other ultra-right wing pundits have taken to attacking the sources of funding of Canadian environmental groups along the same lines. They seem to think that if there's a nickel of money coming from outside Canada then it must be for ill-intentioned purposes. The anti-globalization left-wing movement of yester-year sure has some curious new champions of late!

By contrast I'm a believer in globalization. My parents are immigrants to this country, where they found better opportunities for themselves. My wife is Japanese, and our children hold dual Japanese-Canadian citizenship. I live in Alberta, where our third largest industry is tourism, with much of that revenue coming from outside Canada. I'm sure that Banff sees foreign money as welcome money, not bad money.

We live in a global world. Everything from business to social change movements to entertainment is now a global endeavor. Canada is home to the entire world, and when it comes to energy resource development and environmental protection, Canada’s choices also have global implications.

Global environmental challenges require global cooperation, as was again demonstrated at the UN climate talks that wrapped up in Durban, South Africa, on Saturday. Our companies, our governments and our Canadian environmental organizations should be proud of attracting foreign investments to help us solve our environmental problems and prosper. In order to maintain Canada's competitiveness in the global clean energy economy, we need an equally globalized approach — not the kind of narrow, "put up the firewalls" approach that Marshall and her kind advocate.


Ed Whittingham

Ed is the Executive Director of the Pembina Institute. He has served in an advisory capacity to companies, industry associations, government bodies and research networks on sustainable energy solutions.


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