Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Big Oil Money for Me, But Not for Thee

The Sierra Club takes fossil fuel money. So does the Nature Conservancy and Rajendra Pachauri’s sustainability conference. So why is the Heartland Institute being torn to pieces for the same behaviour?

A certain accusation is repeated time and again in the climate debate. It’s said that skeptics are lavishly funded by fossil fuel interests that are orchestrating a deliberate disinformation campaign. The implication is that wealthy energy companies are analogous to Goliath – and that green groups are underfunded, pathetic little Davids.

These accusations appeared 14 years ago in Ross Gelbspan’s book, The Heat is On. The description, dating back to September 1998, says the book

examines the campaign of deception by big coal and big oil that is keeping [climate change] off the public agenda…

Chris Mooney’s 2005 The Republican War on Science made similar allegations. In 2007, Newsweek magazine devoted a cover story to this same narrative. Implying that “well-funded naysayers” were the problem, it promised to take readers inside “the denial machine.”

But evidence of a vast, well-funded network was scant. The article cited amounts of $10,000, $53,000 and $165,000. There’s mention of a proposed $5 million campaign, but no proof it actually happened. The biggest number was $19 million that Exxon is alleged to have donated “over the years” to “the Competitive Enterprise Institute and others.”

Soon afterward, one of Newsweek‘s own journalists dismissed the cover story as “highly contrived” and “fundamentally misleading.” The reality, wrote Robert Samuelson, is that “we lack the technology to get from here to there,” to make a serious dent in our greenhouse gas emissions anytime soon. Pretending that this is a morality tale about good guys and bad guys not only dumbs down a complex debate, it discourages dissent – something most of us regard as “the lifeblood of a free society” (backup link here).

But the big oil, comic book analysis didn’t disappear. James Hoggan’s 2009 Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming repeats it. So does Naomi Oreskes’ 2010 Merchants of Doubt.

One would never guess that, behind all of this finger-pointing, there’s an acutely embarrassing truth: fossil fuel funding is only a mortal sin when skeptics cash the cheques. When oil companies give money to green groups, their motives apparently interest no one.

In May 2010, during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Washington Post reported that the owner of the affected oil rig, British Petroleum, had donated nearly $10 million to the Nature Conservancy in recent years. For a time, BP’s chief executive, John Browne, sat on the board of another green group, Conservation International – which received $2 million from the oil giant (backup link here). Among the additional tidbits in the same news article:

The Environmental Defense Fund, which has a policy of not accepting corporate donations [nevertheless] joined with BP, Shell International and other major corporations [in 2007] to form the Partnership for Climate Action…And about 20 energy and environmental groups…joined with BP Wind Energy [in 2008] to form the American Wind and Wildlife Institute

Lots of green groups, therefore, have relationships with fossil fuel companies. That climate skeptics alone are condemned for going near them is bizarre.

Two weeks ago Time magazine revealed that,

between 2007 and 2010 the Sierra Club accepted over $25 million in donations from the gas industry, mostly from…Chesapeake Energy – one of the biggest gas drilling companies in the U.S… [backup link here]

In other words, what Time describes as the “biggest and oldest environmental group” in America felt morally justified in taking $25 million smackaroos from a fossil fuel company so that it could campaign against other fossil fuel companies – those that sell coal. A search of the BBC and the Guardian‘s website reveals absolutely no coverage of that news story. Not one word (see here and here).

In contrast, both those media outlets filed stories about big oil funding this week. So far, there’s one at the BBC and nine at the Guardian. The sacrificial lamb of the moment is the Heartland Institute – a Chicago-based think-tank that works on a variety of issues. Among these are education, health care, telecommunications, financial market regulation, tax policy, law reform, and the environment.

In the world in which climate activists reside, Heartland is the Devil Incarnate because it organizes conferences for climate skeptics. (I, myself, have attended two of those conferences. The photos I took may be seen here, here, and here.)

On Tuesday, the activist website posted online what it says are internal Heartland documents. It’s worth noting that Heartland is a private entity. It isn’t funded by taxpayers’ money the way universities or government departments are. Therefore, the public has no more right to examine Heartland’s internal documents than it has a right to examine a labour union’s confidential papers.

If DeSmogBlog’s claims are correct and these documents are genuine it has chosen to violate Heartland’s privacy by revealing details about its budget, financial payments to named individuals, and the mailing addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of board members. Why? It thinks it’s performing a public service. In its words, these documents reveal that the:

heart of the climate denial machine relies on huge corporate and foundation funding from U.S. businesses… [bold added]

What they actually reveal is that DeSmogBlog can’t do math. Remember, environmental issues are one of several matters with which Heartland is concerned. Yet, according to DeSmogBlog’s purloined documents, Heartland’s total budget in 2011 was less than $5 million. The exact number was a measly $4,638,323.

This is peanuts. Pocket change. Compared to the $238 million the World Wildlife Fund spent in 2011, Heartland’s resources amount to bellybutton lint. The US arm of the WWF had 50 times the number of dollars at its disposal (see page 33 here).

Yet DeSmogBlog would have us believe that these documents are some kind of smoking gun – documentary proof of huge funding by fossil fuel interests. Right. And this molehill is going to overshadow that mountain any day now.

Heartland issued a press release on Wednesday claiming that the most-quoted of these documents (the two-page Confidential Memo: 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy) is an outright forgery. Unlike the other files it appears to be a low-quality scan created on February 13th – a mere day before certain news outlets rushed to report on it as though its authenticity were an established fact. Heartland says:

We respectfully ask all activists, bloggers, and other journalists to immediately remove all of these documents and any quotations taken from them, especially the fake “climate strategy” memo and any quotations from the same, from their blogs, Web sites, and publications, and to publish retractions.

The individuals who have commented so far on these documents did not wait for Heartland to confirm or deny the authenticity of the documents. We believe their actions constitute civil and possibly criminal offenses for which we plan to pursue charges and collect payment for damages, including damages to our reputation.

As of this writing, on what is now Friday afternoon in my timezone, DeSmogBlog has declined to remove the files from its website. Given the above, I agonized over whether to link to DeSmogBlog from within this post. Unfortunately, one cannot challenge what that entity is saying without providing evidence of its statements.

But let us return to the funding issue. DeSmogBlog expects us to be impressed that these documents reveal that Heartland raises “money from oil companies” and that it also receives money from a foundation DeSmogBlog characterizes as a “fossil fuel fortune.”

If these are mortal sins I look forward to the posting of internal documents from the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International. All of those groups have also taken oil money. Should they not be similarly drawn-and-quartered?

While DeSmogBlog is at it, perhaps it will purloin confidential files connected to Rajendra Pachauri’s annual Delhi Sustainable Development Summit. In both 2003 and 2004 the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd. and the Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. were among its sponsors.

The 2005 summit was similarly supported by two oil companies – one of which was Shell. In its turn, BP was a sponsor in 2006 and 2007.

In 2008 General Electric joined the sponsorship ranks. The fact that this multinational corporation provides “equipment and services for all segments of the oil and gas industry” was not regarded as an impediment to accepting its financial largesse.

In 2010, one of the people on the summit’s organizing committee was a gent named Jamshed Irani. He’s the director of Tata Sons – which owns Tata Petrodyne. As the large print on the latter company’s website explains, it’s a “Significant player in the Exploration and Production of Crude Oil and Natural Gas.”

Moreover, Pachauri’s summit took money from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. According to Wikipedia, John Rockefeller founded Standard Oil and became the world’s richest man on the strength of his kerosene and gasoline interests.

Isn’t it about time that we journalists, bloggers, and environmental activists all grew up? Either fossil fuel money is dirty or it isn’t. Either everyone who takes it deserves to be tarred, feathered, and have their private business posted on the Internet – or no one does.


I’ve written previously about the fossil-fuel funding question:

Slurs, Smears & Money (June 2009)

Independent Bloggers vs Corporate Environmentalists (Feb. 2010)

BP, Greenpeace & the Big Oil Jackpot (June 2010)

The Royal Society’s Big Oil Award (Nov. 2010)

Greenpeace, Corporate Stocks & Noah’s Arks (Jan. 2011)


See also Ben Pile’s Greens to sceptics: show us the money!


Check out my two-year-old DeSmogBlog parody – and my all-kidding-aside free speech critique


The 2007 Newsweek article may be seen here or below:

Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine
Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine Part 2
Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine Part 3
Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine Part 4
Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine Part 5
Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine Part 6



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