The problem of “Dark Money”

dark money

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Eyebrows were raised this week when an American group gave $2 million US plus unspecified “expert resources” to Tzeporah Berman, the Vancouver-based campaigner who has made a lucrative career out of working with her U.S.-based advisors to kneecap the Canadian resource economy.

Berman’s latest assignment, according to the American group channeling the money to Berman, is to “engineer a large reduction in new oil and gas development that will ensure huge amounts of carbon stay un-combusted and out of the atmosphere.”  In reality, the best Berman can hope for is to harm the prospects of Canada. Few other countries in the world are as willing as we are to host foreign incursions that mischaracterize the nature of energy development.

Despite having the carefully tailored appearance of a personal gift, the generous donation is an example of the latest thing from left-wing American eco-philanthropy to evade accountability: the “sponsor” model, in which activists rather than incorporated entities are paid directly.

This allows funders to avoid dis­closing any information – salaries, vendors, original funders, boards, strategies – that could reveal their political or quasi-political motives. Power Grab, a new book published this week by former U.S. congressman Jason Chaffetz, shines a light on the trend, providing timely background into the lengths that patrons like Berman’s are going to, and how successful they have been.

The sponsor dodge means that, henceforth, efforts to discern the already murky pathways of foreign eco-dollars influencing Canadian politics will discover nothing beyond a black hole. Even the modest level of scrutiny that researchers like Vivian Krause have been able to apply by investigating U.S. tax disclosures will be thwarted. As ever more ingenious ways are developed to undermine economically and environmentally beneficial resource investments in Canada, opportunities will flow instead to our competitors.

How exactly will all the money be spent? It’s not hard to decode the to-do list attached to Berman’s windfall:

“Corporate purchasing policy commitments”: This could mean harassing those who do business with Canadian oil & companies, just as Berman once did to harm forest companies in their markets abroad. It’s easy to imagine a new wave of propaganda campaigns urging consumers to shun Canadian products until the “planet-killing tar sands” are shut down. And we can expect to see certain bath-soap and outdoor clothing retailers agreeing to participate in more campaigns that frighten their customers about bad Canada (as long as it doesn’t harm sales of their hydrocarbon-reliant products, of course!).

“National and sub-national policy campaigns”: This is shorthand for more lobbying of our elected politicians in the quest for foreign-backed policies that limit investment and employment. Bill C-48, the new federal law that bans oil tankers from British Columbia’s north coast, is the successful result of exactly this kind of ambition. To a great extent so is C-69, the so-called “no more pipelines” bill. Both came about because of decades of small, stealthy steps that eventually added up to huge policy wins. It doesn’t always work out: Berman’s infamous attempt to gain inside sway over Alberta’s oilsands policy agenda was an insane overreach that proved to be a disaster for all who enabled it.

Today, the pressures are at every level of government. A current example is the “climate emergency” campaign aimed at municipalities. The idea here is to pressure town councils to adopt what seems like a motherhood-and-apple-pie climate measure, only for them to soon discover that they have created a massive legal minefield affecting all kinds of unrelated future decision making. Just ask anyone who has to seek permits in a “climate emergency” community whether it’s making an impact.

“Public narrative and movement building”: A few years back, I walked the shore of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet with Ms. Berman, trailed by a broadcast team as we debated some issues attached to the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX). The thing I remember most is the moment she took a long pause for emphasis, drew up as if at a lectern, and declared: “This pipeline will never be built.” Even at the time, the Gandhi routine came across as stagey and hubristic. Never mind if she is shortly to be proved wrong as the long-awaited project grinds toward completion. What she was displaying was the heart of a true propagandist: stay on message, don’t worry about the facts, and never undermine the movement by showing doubt or, god forbid, considering compromise or acknowledging new information or common interest. Going forward, expect to see a fresh wave of high-emotion, bepigtailed campaigns targeting voter segments to pressure politicians into adopting extremist views.

Though eco-lobbyists operating in Canada often are often heard to complain that it’s the Koch family and other right-wing funders of non-profit enterprise who are the problem, Chaffetz’s research shows that left-wing causes such as those that support Berman’s work are by far the biggest and wealthiest players in U.S. politics. There is plenty of evidence we have this same trend in Canada.

In 2018 the non­profit watch­dog Capital Research Center analysed U.S. grants handed out in the 2014 election year by six big foundations on the right (including the Bradley and Charles Koch foundations) versus six on the left (including the Open Society and Tides foundations).

As reported in this week’s Wall Street Journal, left-of-centre American public policy charities took in $7.4 billion US from foundations in 2014. For conservative charities, the figure was a mere $2.2 billion, which translates to $3.36 toward the left for every $1 to the right. The $7.4 billion by far exceeded direct spending on political campaigns.

The new sponsor model is exemplified by Arabella Advisers, a for-profit, privately held entity that funds activism using a Tides-like model. Four generously funded non-profits it manages received $1.6 billion in donations over four years, allowing them in turn to collectively sponsor dozens of left-of-centre political efforts.

Welcome to the new era of eco-policy influence: no tracks, no tax records, no accountability.

Don’t expect to read elsewhere about the new trend toward clandestine financing, or see anyone daring to question the Berman social-justice warrior halo, or ask what the $2 million will be spent on, or what is represented by those additional “expert resources” on top of the cash. Few Canadian journalists have shown any interest in probing the inflow of U.S. dark money, unless it is claimed to involve right-wing causes.

It’s an unfortunate reality that the politics of the left and right have come to match almost exactly the duelling positions of fossil-fuel abolitionism versus accountable market-led innovation. The truth is that Canadians across the board are concerned about protecting the environment. They want to minimize their footprint while also building energy infrastructure to the highest standards in the world, and solve the crisis of competitiveness that has descended on our primary industries.

If Canada is sidelined from being an energy producer, the impact on global climate will be scant. Less fastidious oil and gas producers will serve any markets that we cannot, just as China and India will go on increasing their consumption of fuels and feedstock. Canada’s economic stability depends on staying in the game, as well as understanding the threats.

The takeaway here is that workers, entrepreneurs and businesses have plenty of reasons to escalate their struggle against the new forms of cultural warfare. It’s no longer enough simply to rail against outside influencers who will go to extreme lengths to retain a cloak of secrecy. For starters, political candidates this fall should be prepared to explain what measures they have in mind to bring transparency to foreign funding.

Stewart Muir is a Victoria-based writer on energy and natural resources.

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