Ecofiscal Commission: the ‘green’ face of the tar sands?

Proponents of a carbon tax in this country have probably heard of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. Formed in 2014 to promote “practical solutions for growing prosperity,” it has an annual budget of millions, a long roster of notables from the private and public sectors, and the marketing savvy of a Bay Street firm. You could be forgiven for thinking it was an authority on climate change policy.

Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission is not a commission and has nothing to do with the Canadian government. And, despite Ecofiscal’s claims otherwise, it is anything but independent. Ecofiscal is partially funded by oil giant Suncor and TD Bank, a major financer of the Kinder Morgan and DAPL pipelines, say nothing of the billions it has sunk into tar sands projects. Ecofiscal’s 2016 annual report indicates 85 per cent of the funding comes from family foundations and 15 per cent from corporations. Suncor CEO Steve Williams sits on Ecofiscal’s advisory board, as does Karen Clarke-Whistler, TD Bank’s chief environment officer. How can an organization be expected to offer independent, objective policy recommendations when it’s receiving funding from Big Oil?

The financial bond between Ecofiscal and Big Oil is plain for all to see. Far less obvious, however, is the degree to which they appear to be actively coordinating to influence public debate on carbon taxes. For those details to come to light, it took a Greenpeace Canada freedom-of-information request to the Government of Saskatchewan. The FOI request was for a policy brief used by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) when lobbying the federal government on the pan-Canada climate plan last year. It suggests that CAPP and Ecofiscal see eye-to-eye on the matter of carbon tax revenues being “recycled” back to carbon-intensive industries. When asked about the disclosure, CAPP’s Krista Phillips told The Canadian Press that CAPP is taking its cue from Ecofiscal in pushing for fossil fuel producers to get a cut of carbon tax revenues. While Ecofiscal has not specifically said carbon tax revenues should be “recycled” back to fossil fuel producers, it has advocated for the temporary use of carbon pricing revenues for industries that are “emissions intensive” and whose competitiveness is most affected by carbon pricing.

CAPP is fighting for a bigger slice of the revenue pie for its paying members in the tar sands. No surprise there. But Ecofiscal? A look at the people behind Ecofiscal shows just how closely their interests are aligned:

Jean Charest is a former federal and provincial politician who sits on the Ecofiscal advisory board. During his public career, Charest often stood out as a strong voice on environmental issues. But since transitioning into the private sector, he has parlayed his political credentials into a paycheque from tar sands pipeline developer TransCanada Corporation. According to reporting by the National Observer, Charest met with National Energy Board officials in January 2015 to discuss the Energy East pipeline. At the time, Charest was working as a “communications adviser” for TransCanada Corp., the Calgary-based energy company backing Energy East. After the meeting was made public, the entire review process for Energy East was deemed compromised and had to be restarted. Then, in early 2016, the PMO claimed that Charest attempted to set up a meeting between the Prime Minister’s Office and TransCanada officials, a meeting the PMO says it ultimately rejected. Charest said that he merely had a conversation with PMO officials where the Energy East pipeline was discussed. Although Charest was ultimately cleared of breaking lobbying laws—the lobbying commissioner found that Charetst had stopped working for TransCanada as of the fall of 2015 and that Charest did not try to set up a meeting—the episode demonstrates where Mr. Charest’s post-political loyalties lie.

Jim Dinning is another Ecofiscal advisory board member with ties to Big Oil. Dinning’s career in public office spanned more than 20 years in Alberta. He has since served on the corporate boards of companies linked to the fossil fuel industry. One of these companies is Russel Metals Inc., where Dinning is the chairman of the board. Russel Metals is a distributor that supplies metal to fossil fuel energy producers in Western Canada and the United States, including products needed for new pipeline construction. Dinning also served on the board of Parkland Fuel Corporation as an independent director until 2014. Parkland is a downstream company focused on gasoline, diesel, and propane with over 1,100 retail sites across Canada. The company’s past shareholder reports have regularly devoted a bullet-point to “alternative fuels and hybrid vehicles” under the “business risk” section.

It’s no coincidence then that biofuel subsidies happen to be a central and consistent target of Ecofiscal’s media campaigning. These attacks likely resulted in former Ontario premier and federal Liberal Party leader Bob Rae stepping down from Ecofiscal’s advisory board.

Many of Ecofiscal’s commissioners are academics, having worked in universities or think tanks across Canada. Yet this geographic diversity belies a right-leaning, small-government bias that pervades the commission’s brain trust. At least five of Ecofiscal’s eleven commissioners at one time worked for or with the C.D. Howe Institute, including the commission’s founder Chris Ragan. Elyse Allan, CEO of GE Canada and advisor to Ecofiscal, also currently sits on the board of C.D. Howe. If you’re wondering why carbon tax research couldn’t have simply been conducted via C.D. Howe, it’s likely because the institute’s obvious pro-business agenda would clash with Ecofiscal’s “independent” branding.

The Ecofiscal advisory board also includes an activist or two, which is mystifying in and of itself. How could anyone in the green movement support the temporary use of carbon pricing revenues for industries who are “emission intensive” (which would presumably include fossil fuel industries). That’s like diverting cigarette tax revenues to Big Tobacco, to “ease its transition.” One such individual is Peter Robinson. Up until recently the Ecofiscal website improperly listed Mr. Robinson as CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation despite the fact that he is reported to have stepped down back in November of 2016. What would David Suzuki, a vocal opponent of the tar sands, think about his name being associated with the possibility of diverting carbon tax revenues to the fossil fuel industry and tar sands development?

Ecofiscal is not an impartial authority on climate change, and it does the next generation a disservice by pretending to be one. Canada doesn’t need the fossil fuel industry’s old ideas in a new package. What we need is for carbon tax revenues to be used to help transition Canada away from fossil fuels and towards 100 per cent green renewable energy. Future generations will thank us.

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