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MONTREAL—A secret meeting between top Canadian Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (ENGOs) and tar sands corporations was cancelled after word of the meeting spread beyond the initial invitees, according to two emails leaked to The Dominion.
Billed as a "fireside chat" and an opportunity for "deeper dialogue" in a room at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the invitation was sent by Marlo Raynolds of the Pembina Institute on behalf of himself and Gord Lambert of Suncor. Suncor is the fifth-largest oil company in North America, and the Pembina institute is a high-profile advocate for sustainable energy in Alberta. The invitation was marked "confidential."
Ten representatives each from tar sands operators and high-profile environmental groups were invited to the "informal, beer in hand" gathering. The David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence Canada, Forest Ethics, Pollution Probe and Tides Canada were among the invited environmental groups. Merran Smith of ForestEthics was listed without affiliation, as was Tzeporah Berman, who worked to privatize BC's rivers as director of PowerUp Canada, and who is slated to start work this month as Greenpeace International's Climate Campaigner. Among invited oil companies were Shell, ConocoPhilips, Total and Statoil. Leading tar sands investor Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) was also on the guestlist.
The event would be, the invitation explained, "an opportunity for a few ENGOs and a few companies to share their thoughts on the current state of relations and explore ideas on how a deeper dialogue might occur."
Three days later, Raynolds sent a second email, cancelling the gathering, owing to "the level of tension" between "a subset of companies and a subset of ENGOs." The followup email specified a legal dispute. Sources in Albertan environmental circles suggested pressure to cancel came from threats to expose the meeting publicly.
"I personally believe we all need to find a way to create the space and conditions necessary for deeper and meaningful conversations to find some solutions," wrote Raynolds, explaining the cancellation. "I do hope that in the coming months, we can work to create those conditions."
The invitation to the secret meeting came as several of the invited groups had signed on to an open letter to Enbridge, asking it to cancel the Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would pipe tar sands crude to BC's central coast, to be put on oil tankers. The letter was published as a full page ad in the Globe and Mail.
In 2008, the Pembina Institute and the Canadian Boreal Initiative (financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts; see "Can Pew's Charity be Trusted?," November 2007) released a report proposing "conservation offsets" as a way to mitigate the destruction of biodiversity by tar sands operations.
According to Pembina, conservation offsets "allow resource companies to compensate for the unavoidable impact to biodiversity from their development projects by conserving lands of equal or greater biological value, with the objective of having no net loss in biodiversity."
Pembina acknowledged a contribution of $44,000 from tar sands operator Nexen for the "costs of the document."
Petr Cizek, a land use planner and long-time critic of ENGOs' campaigns because of their lack of transparency and accountability, said it is to be expected that prominent environmental groups will meet in secret with oil companies.
"Is this surprising? No. Is this blatant? Yes," Cizek said.
"The issue isn't negotiation or compromise. I've done lots of both in my time. The issue is whether the negotiations are transparent and the organizations are democratic. Virtually none of these organizations are democratic," he said.
Environmentalists invited to the secret meeting have come under fire by grassroots environmental activists for their secretive, back-room approach to negotiations with corporations in previous campaigns. Tzeporah Berman and Merran Smith both acted as negotiators when ForestEthics and other BC ENGOs accepted a deal that protected 20 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest.
Some grassroots organizations and First Nations were furious at the deal, which settled for half the minimum protected area outlined in protocol agreements signed by environmental groups and First Nations prior to the negotiations. (The area protected by the Great Bear deal was later increased to 30 per cent after First Nations' land use plans forced reconsideration of some of the concessions.)
Cizek said he is not bothered by the outcome of negotiations, but by the lack of accountability and public oversight.
"My issue isn't the fact that they protected only 30 per cent, or that they protected the wrong 30 per cent. In some cases, maybe that is all that you can achieve. These negotiations can be really ugly. I've been there," he said.
"My issue is that they lied to and betrayed and broke a deal they had with the smaller organizations."
In a 2009 interview published in the report Offsetting Resistance, Valhalla Wilderness Society (one of the smaller organizations Cizek mentioned) Director Anne Sherrod made the connection between the Great Bear Rainforest agreement and the tar sands.
"These are greenwashing deals. I am speaking out about this because there is evidence that the collaborative agreement industry may be moving to the tar sands," said Sherrod.
"I want everyone to know that issues where people are dying of cancer from serious pollution is no place for this kind of thing. Open public process is your best friend in situations like this. Insist on it."
Dru Oja Jay is a member of the Dominion editorial collective. He is co-author, with Macdonald Stainsby, of the report Offsetting Resistance: The effects of foundation funding from the Great Bear Rainforest to the Athabasca River.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.