Retired SFU communications professor Donald Gutstein is an old hand when it comes to dissecting the activities of neoliberal think tanks.
His last two books—Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada and Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy—made a convincing case that there needs to be far more scrutiny of the funding of the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute and other organizations like it on both sides of the border.
So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that he has zeroed in on these public-policy hawkers in his new book, The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks Are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada.
But in an interview in the Tangent Café on Commercial Drive, Gutstein conceded that when he began researching this topic two years ago, he had no idea of the extent to which they’ve influenced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s policies in the wake of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
“I didn’t know too much about the subject when I started,” Gutstein told the Straight over a bowl of soup. “Through the research and reading good stuff, gradually it all kind of emerged.”
The book opens with an examination of the National Energy Program, which was introduced by Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, after the Liberals were returned to power in 1980.
The NEP’s made-in-Canada oil-pricing formula was vehemently opposed by the Business Council on National Issues, which had been founded by resource-company CEOs in 1976 in response to a decision by Trudeau senior to introduce wage and price controls.
Once Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives came to power in 1984, a new energy minister from Vancouver, Pat Carney, was given a mandate to dismantle the NEP with the help of her top assistant, Harry Near, a former executive at Imperial Oil.
These changes were locked in by the free trade agreement of 1988, which, according to The Big Stall, “prohibited the imposition of discriminatory export taxes, something that the NEP used to promote domestic consumption”.
“I’ve had this sense all my life that business is generally doing whatever it needs to do to make profits in circumventing regulations,” Gutstein said.
According to him, the business community “went on the attack” against pioneering environmental author Rachel Carson even before her famous exposé of pesticides, Silent Spring, was released in 1962.
He also reports in his book that for years, Big Oil tried to sow doubt about climate change by copying some of the techniques that had been pioneered by public-relations practitioners trying to create uncertainty over whether or not cigarettes caused cancer.
In the 1970s, economists began to be hired by some environmental organizations, which then issued reports calculating the costs associated with environmental degradation. The problem with this approach, according to Gutstein, is that this “locked in the privatization of the environment” by putting a price on pollution.
From there, he said, it was only a natural step that carbon emissions would also be priced—something that Big Oil began welcoming around 2007 after it was clear that climate change was real and that corporations faced the prospect of hard-hitting regulations.
Writing in the Calgary Herald that year, the Canada West Foundation’s then president and CEO, Roger Gibbins, called for a climate-change policy to be rooted in the objectives of Western Canada. Gutstein writes that Gibbins’s proposal “would yoke climate change to the energy policy cart and be steered by a western Canadian driver, ensuring the combined policy formation would head in a direction desired by Big Oil”.
The following year, B.C. became the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce a broad-based carbon tax.
“I think at the end of the day, [former B.C. premier] Gordon Campbell brought in the carbon tax because he was worried about the next election,” Gutstein said.
Even though Big Oil was prepared to accept a carbon tax as part of a national energy strategy, Gutstein said that then prime minister Stephen Harper refused to go along with the idea.
That didn’t stop Gibbins and others—including former Canadian Council of Chief Executives CEO Tom d’Aquino, Suncor Energy CEO Rick George, and former TransCanada PipeLines CEO Hal Kvisle—from meeting at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel to discuss the formulation of a North American energy strategy.
Two years later, this idea was advanced again at a meeting in Winnipeg, where leaders of 11 think tanks “agreed that a national dialogue on the role of energy in Canada’s environmental future was very much needed”.
One of the sponsors was Jim Carr, then president of the Business Council of Manitoba and later the natural resources minister and international trade diversification minister in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.
Gutstein reports in The Big Stall that six months after the Winnipeg Consensus was drafted, in 2009, heavy hitters involved in the energy industry and representatives of a small number of environmental organizations met in Banff.
Among them was the Pembina Institute’s Marlo Raynolds, who later became chief of staff to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.
Another person at this event was Gerald Butts, president of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, who is now the senior political adviser to Trudeau. D’Aquino’s successor, former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, was also present.
“But the biggest news from Banff was the presence of six representatives of a new player on the scene, the Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC),” Gutstein writes. “This organization was incorporated the same month the Winnipeg Consensus was reached, October 2009. It had the backing of Canada’s largest fossil fuel companies, like Shell Canada, Imperial Oil, Canadian Natural Resources, and Suncor Energy, pipeline companies TransCanada Corporation and Enbridge, plus the major fossil fuel industry associations and especially the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.”
Gutstein told the Straight that he believes Manley was groomed for his position as president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada because he would be well positioned to endorse a carbon tax as part of a grand bargain that would also ensure a Liberal government would include pipeline projects in any national climate plan.
And Gutstein maintained that this market-based solution of a tax on pollution isn’t going to result in the types of emission reductions that could be obtained by tough government regulations, even though it would appear to be a reasonable compromise to the public. That’s what the book’s title, The Big Stall, refers to.
Gutstein, a practising Buddhist, said he wanted to document how all of this has unfolded under Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.
“Basically, Big Oil is causing enormous suffering from a Buddhist point of view,” he said. “People have to know about it.”