President Obama’s recent decision to deny a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline was widely hailed on the environmental left. Particularly exuberant was the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), which declared on its website that the decision came “against great political odds and the deep-pocketed backing of the oil industry.” The specter of oil industry money and its nefarious influence on politics was a familiar environmental talking point. What the fund did not acknowledge was that its own deep-pocketed backing for environmental groups had a far more decisive impact on Obama’s decision to cancel the pipeline project.
Earlier this month the Canadian news channel Sun News uncovered a PowerPoint presentation by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund that lays bare its strategy of funding a host of environmental groups to thwart the Keystone XL pipeline as well as other development projects that the fund considered a “globally significant threat.” According to investigative reporter Lachlan Markay, the 2008 presentation “describes the allocation of $7 million to environmental non-profits for tactics that include the use of the legislative and legal systems to delay or derail energy production in the United States and Canada, and to ‘raise the costs’ of energy in both nations.” The Daily Caller reports that the 2008 strategy session also featured presentations from Rockefeller Brothers Fund program officer Michael Northrop as well as the representatives of several environmental groups, among them Corporate Ethics International, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Pembina Institute, a Canadian activist group. Together, these groups would emerge at the forefront of an alarmist scare-campaign that ultimately led to Keystone’s cancellation.
Tax records examined by the Daily Caller show that between 2007 and 2010, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave $1.25 million to Portland, Oregon-based Corporate Ethics International, an environmental group whose declared mission is to bring corporations “under the control of the citizenry.” A description of the grant by the RBF says that the money was intended “to coordinate the initial steps of a markets campaign to stem demand for tar sands derived fuels in the United States,” a reference to the Keystone pipeline, which would have transported oil from the tar sands near Alberta, Canada, to the U.S Gulf Coast. To prevent that from happening, in July 2010 Corporate Ethics International began a campaign urging American and British visitors to steer clear of Alberta during their travels as long as tar sands exploration was in progress. Considering that Alberta’s tourism industry generates $5 billion in annual revenues, the anti-Keystone campaign targeted the lifeblood of the province.
The campaign was backed by another RBF grantee, the Natural Resources Defense Council. With over $181 million in net assets as of 2010, the NRDC is one of the largest and most powerful environmental groups, and it used the full force of its clout to cast the Keystone project as a disaster in waiting. For instance, a March 2011 NRDC issue paper claimed that “the proposed pipeline presents serious environmental and health risks” and warned that it would be a threat to freshwater supplies in the American heartland. By November of 2011, Obama was reciting the NRDC’s claims virtually verbatim. In so doing, he was contradicting the findings of his own State Department, which after an exhaustive review of the Keystone project had concluded in August of 2011 that the pipeline would have “no significant impact” on land and water sources on its route. In the event, the NRDC proved more influential than the State Department.
While the NRDC ratcheted up the rhetoric of environmental calamity in the U.S., RBF funds helped other environmental groups make the same apocalyptic appeal in Canada. Thus one recipient of the funds was the Vancouver, British Columbia based environmental non-profit the Pembina Institute. The goal of the funding was to “prevent the development of a pipeline and tanker port that endangers the Great Bear Rainforest protected area.” Accordingly, the Pembina Institute warned of “disastrous health and safety impacts of unfettered, weakly regulated, and weakly monitored oilsands development.” The Pembina Institute also partnered with the NRDC to release a report claiming that bitumen from the oilsands is more corrosive and heavier than conventional oil, thus making a pipeline failure or tanker leak more likely.
As with much of the environmental opposition to Keystone, this claim drew significant press attention. Yet it was scientifically dubious. A November 2011 review of the existing research on bitumen corrosiveness by Alberta Innovates, an Alberta governmental agency, found that in fact bitumen oil’s characteristics “are not unique and are comparable to conventional crude oils during pipeline flow.” Moreover, the report found, the historic data showed that the internal corrosion and failure rate of a pipeline transferring bitumen oil was “statistically comparable” to conventional oil.
If these facts failed to register on the media’s radar, RBF-funded groups were a major reason why. Yet another group fueled by the RBF cash was the so-called Sustainable Markets Foundation. In 2010, the RBF gave the foundation a $100,000 grant for its 350.org program. The purpose of the program was to put pressure on the Obama administration to oppose the Keystone pipeline. In a direct appeal to the president, the group claimed that the “sands represent a catastrophic threat to our communities, our climate, and our planet” and demanded that Obama reject the permit. When the Obama ultimately did reject it, 350.org claimed victory, declaring on its website: “After relentless campaigning, the Keystone XL pipeline has been effectively killed!”
The twist in the environmental left’s victory on Keystone is that it was made possible in large part by a foundation whose funds are the legacy of Big Oil. Founded in 1940 from the fortune of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller Sr., the Rockefeller Brothers Fund gradually fell into the hands of political progressives who steered it toward anti-capitalist and environmental causes. The fund’s success in scuttling a major oil pipeline may mark the crowning achievement in its decades-long political conversion.
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