Talisman Energy kick-started U of C climate skeptic fund
OTTAWA — A major Alberta-based oil and gas company helped to kick-start an elaborate public relations project designed to cast doubt on scientific evidence linking human activity to global warming with a $175,000 donation in 2004 channelled through the University of Calgary, a newly-released letter has revealed.
The donation from Talisman Energy was the largest single contribution to a pair of trust accounts at the university that received $507,975 in donations to produce a video and engage in public relations, advertising and lobbying activities against the Kyoto Protocol and government measures to restrict fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
"Talisman is pleased to be a part of this exciting project and wish you success in the production of the video," said the letter, dated Nov. 4, 2004, to university account administrator Chantal-Lee Watt, that accompanied a $175,000 cheque.
The document was released to Postmedia News by the university along with hundreds of pages of details about the project under orders from the office of Alberta's information and privacy commissioner, Franklin J. Work.
The new information was withheld initially by the university following a 2008 request under the province's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, but is now being made public following an inquiry by Work's office.
The accounts were sponsored at the university by political science professor Barry Cooper following a request from a group calling itself the Friends of Science, which was formed by retired oil industry workers and academics who oppose the Kyoto Protocol and reject the validity of peer-reviewed science on the causes of climate change observed in recent decades. The accounts allowed donors to make anonymous contributions to the cause and receive tax receipts by sending their money either through the university or the Calgary Foundation, a registered charity.
The accounts were to be used to produce the video researching political aspects of climate change policies and debates, but thousands of dollars were also spent on trips, hotels and events organized by the Friends of Science, which is still active today.
The activities and the marketing campaign continued until 2007, when a complaint from an Internet blogger using the name "Deep Climate" prompted the university's administration to audit the accounts and shut them down after concluding they were being used for partisan activity.
Several donors and stakeholders, including Talisman, whose names appeared in the accounts, urged Work's office to protect their anonymity and prevent details of their activities from emerging publicly.
"It is reasonable to assume and to expect that should this affected party's identity be revealed, it could result in an unjustified and unsubstantiated 'guilt by association' with the Calgary Foundation and the Friends of Science, and consequential reputational damage to this affected party that is unwarranted and unjust," wrote Talisman in an anonymous submission to Work's office. "This unjustified reputational harm will likely have negative adverse affect on the share value of this affected party, thereby harming not only this affected party but more importantly, its shareholders."
The company said in its submission that there was nothing in the university audit to suggest that it was aware its own funds were "being used for political purposes." It also acknowledged that it had no "explicit discussion" with the university about maintaining its confidentiality.
When asked why it tried to prevent details of the donation from emerging, Talisman spokeswoman Phoebe Buckland said that the donation was a decision made by the company's former president, who had "different views of climate change" science.
"Today, Talisman's position is quite different and Talisman does believe that (greenhouse gas emissions) pose a significant risk to the industry," she said.
She said she was unable to find out whether the company had received tax receipts for its donation to the project, but highlighted numerous initiatives that the company has now adopted to manage its footprint on the climate, including participation in an international disclosure project of its greenhouse gas emissions.
Talisman's former president, James Buckee, said he did not recall details about authorizing the donation, but acknowledged that he had invited Friends of Science members into the company boardroom, made thousands of dollars worth of personal donations to their cause and worked with Tom Harris, a former APCO Worldwide public relations specialist based in Ottawa, who was involved in co-ordinating the project's initial $175,000 budget.
Buckee, an astrophysicist who is now retired in England, told Postmedia News that he doesn't believe human activity is causing global warming and is concerned that billions of dollars are being committed or spent to address a problem that doesn't really exist.
The Friends of Science noted in 2004 that its major anonymous contributor was "most supportive and encouraging of our efforts to present the best possible publicity and through their PR consultants."
"This is especially important in view of the announcement by Russia that they will probably ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which makes us even more dedicated to presenting some science to the equation to make Ottawa and the provincial governments more aware that science should be considered," wrote Charles Simpson, then the president of the Friends of Science, in a Sept. 4, 2004 letter.
The other significant donations to the account included a $50,000 contribution from the Kahanoff Foundation, a charity established in 1979 by Sydney Kahanoff, a Calgary oil and gas executive and philanthropist, and a $75,000 donation from an individual or company that remains anonymous. Murphy Oil also made a $1,050 donation to match an employee contribution.
"This was never about science," said Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner Keith Stewart. "It was about implementing a political strategy invented by a Republican spin doctor to cast doubt on the science so governments wouldn't force polluters to clean up their act. I am surprised that a university would channel donor dollars to support this kind of anti-science agenda."
Stewart also compared the tactics of climate change skeptics to recent public relations efforts involving the industry and officials from the federal and Alberta governments to lobby against climate change action that would single out emissions from the Alberta oilsands.
"We know that the oil industry has been the major funder of the climate denial industry in the United States and has spearheaded the charge against action on climate change here in Canada," said Stewart. "People don't like big oil, so the industry likes to work through front groups with neutral-sounding names."
Douglas Leahey, who was president of the Friends of Science up until June 2011, defended the donations.
"We've always been on record to say that we would welcome money from any sources that would help us express our views on . . . climate change," Leahey said. "We were quite grateful to get this contribution from James Buckee whose views coincided with our own."