Midjourney generated image of maple-flavored astroturf

Astroturfing Now Comes In Maple Flavor With New Pro-Oil Sands ‘Grassroots’ Campaign

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There’s a new astroturf organization in town, folks. Yes, Canada’s Energy United is claiming to be a grassroots, non-profit organization, but it really, really isn’t.

What’s an astroturf organization?

“Astroturfing is the practice of hiding the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from, and is supported by, grassroots participants. It is a practice intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information about the source’s financial backers.”

I’ve been watching various versions on and off around the world. I started being aware of them when I was debunking wind energy disinformation at the beginning of last decade. One of the most obvious was related to a proposed wind farm on King Island, a thousand square kilometer island of rock, grass, and trees in the middle of the Roaring Forties trade winds about 90 kilometers off the coast of Australia. The mine had closed, the young people were leaving, the amazing cheese business was inadequate to support the entire economy, and there were proposals for golf courses and a big wind farm connected to Oz with an undersea cable.

Naturally, the golf courses and their supporters and backers were opposed to the wind farms because… uh… reasons. Okay, like a lot of golf course owners they thought golfers wouldn’t like seeing wind turbines, which is such a weird idea that I still struggle with it despite golf course developers globally, including Donald Trump in Scotland, fighting wind farms tooth and nail.

So a PR organization that worked with right-wing politicians, the coal industry, and anti-wind farm campaigns on the mainland of Australia were hired to put up a ‘grassroots’ website and Facebook page. They were going to fly in the flakey ex-family doctor Sarah Laurie, the director of the also astroturfing organization, The Waubra Foundation, although that was thankfully axed, so the islanders weren’t as exposed to the BS about wind turbine syndrome that Laurie peddled. That organization was founded by Peter Mitchell, director of several oil and gas companies, because he didn’t want to see wind turbines 10 km away at the end of the valley his rural estate was in.

Laurie is now apparently selling training on how to breathe, her paid position with the foundation seemingly having ended.

“Sarah Laurie founded Take a Breath in 2019 after pressing pause on a 15-year career as an author and speaker in the wellness space.”

Read that as being paid to make people sick by telling them lies about the health impacts of wind turbines and low-frequency sound. The opposite of wellness, actually.

The King Island ‘grassroots’ campaign was all very slick, the venal PR firms made good coin, the wind farm proposal was killed, and they got golf courses a 210 kilometer flight away from the nearest big population center, Melbourne. Real climate win there.

It was pretty easy to figure out who was behind the website and the like, because professional disinformation types are usually pretty bad at covering their tracks. They try, but if they were the sharpest set of knives in the drawer they wouldn’t be peddling themselves to the fossil fuel industry at the expense of the planet. In that case, if memory serves, the domain name was registered to the PR firm itself.

But back to the oil sands of Alberta. Their big lobbying group is and was the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). The new ‘conservative’ Alberta government, when Albertans voted out the only good government they’ve had in forty years in 2019, ended the provincial carbon price and established its own oil sands propaganda arm, the Canadian Energy Center — aka the Energy War Room. Its mission was to counter “domestic and foreign-funded campaigns against Canada’s oil and gas industry”.

Yeah, Alberta’s oil sands’ problem was that poorly funded environmentalists from away were making it look bad, so the government set up a bunch of its favorite rah-rah oil sands and the facts be damned types to combat those nefarious greenies and gave them C$30 million to play with. Amazingly, they managed not to spend it all on illegal dinners during COVID, and the budget was dropped to C$12 million along the way. That amount of money is still beyond the ken of virtually every environmental campaigning group in the world.

But eventually, the heady days of steak, scotch, and cigars came to an end at CAPP. One of Canada’s biggest financial institutions, ScotiaBank was one of its major funders, paying for its annual conference of oil-soaked excesses. Or at least they were oil-soaked excesses prior to COVID. The past few years’ conferences were virtual, of course.

ScotiaBank was the only one of Canada’s banks to fund CAPP, and was understandably getting a lot of heat for that. So last year’s conference was its last support CAPP as well. All that banking money left the lobbying group. And with the money, so went a bunch of the staff, including the president and CEO, along with vice-presidents and executive vice presidents.

Where did they wash up? Well, at a newly minted partnership, Garrison Strategy. What does it purport to do? Government relations, public relations, and policy positions and research, per their website.

What have they actually done that’s visible? Created a ‘grassroots’ campaign, undoubtedly funded by their friends in the oil sands industry, possibly the Alberta government and maybe even that foreign money they decry, called Energy United.

Remember that definition of astroturfing, the part where the sponsors are hidden? Well, Energy United’s LinkedIn profile, Facebook page, Instagram page, and website don’t have any names on them at all. That was a bit of a red flag.

But at the bottom of the website, it says it’s a campaign by some organization called the Maple Leaf Institute. Who are they? Are they grassroots? Well, they actually have a corporate filing, where the directors have to be listed. It’s pretending to be a not-for-profit organization, living off of donations from the little guys in the beleaguered oil and gas industry.

Let’s start with Tim McMillan, BA, Econ., the former president and CEO of CAPP, and a partner in Garrison Strategy.

Also Terry Abel, who used to be executive vice president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), and who is also a partner in Garrison.

Next is Cole Schulz, who remarkably is also a former executive of CAPP and partner in Garrison.

Then there’s Ben Brunnen. Guess what, another form CAPP executive and partner in the consultancy.

Four of the six directors of the Maple Leaf Institute running the campaign are ex-lobbyists with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and partners in a new ‘strategy’ consultancy.

Does this sound like a grassroots exercise to you, or like yet another funded astroturf organization? There are 2 to 3 others who are just normal prairie PR types rounding out the directorship, so not worth naming and shaming, but Energy United is just a post-CAPP propaganda campaign funded by Alberta’s oil and gas industry.

It will take a while for the required filings to show the sources of their revenues, as while Garrison is a partnership and hence doesn’t have to be open, the Maple Leaf Institute is under the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act. In a year or so, they’ll have to expose the sources of funding for their non-profit. I’m pretty sure it won’t be loonies from Fort McMurray that are paying for the organization’s expenses.

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One aspect of the world’s anti-renewables, anti-electric vehicle, and pro-fossils disinformation campaigns is how often the Koch Brothers’ money shows up. In Australia, the right-wing think tank called the Institute for Public Affairs had Koch money on its books. In Canada, the right-wing Fraser Institute also has Koch money. The Kochs were funding anti-EV campaigns to the tune of US$10 million annually a few years ago, and probably still are. Will the Maple Leaf Institute get a few million from the Kochs to continue their noble mission to make the world safe for fossil-fuel oligarchs? Only time will tell.

Just as it took perhaps two minutes to figure out who was behind the ‘grassroots’ King Island anti-wind energy campaign, it took perhaps two minutes to get to the filing and figure out that it was all ex-CAPP lobbyists. As I noted, these aren’t the brightest lights, and basic laziness is typical of the type. If they were smart, motivated, wise and diligent, they wouldn’t be flaks for the oil sands, after all.

Know your sources. Don’t be suckered by the latest astroturf from a dying industry.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team. Most recently he contributed to "Proven Climate Solutions: Leading Voices on How to Accelerate Change" (https://www.amazon.com/Proven-Climate-Solutions-Leading-Accelerate-ebook/dp/B0D2T8Z3MW) along with Mark Z. Jacobson, Mary D. Nichols, Dr. Robert W. Howarth and Dr. Audrey Lee among others.

Michael Barnard has 768 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard