Universities fund $4.5 million fishing expedition to expose "conflicts of interest and malfeasance", but come up dry

The University of Victoria found $730,000 to be part of a $4.5 million, publicly funded corporate smear campaign against energy professionals. The end product is an amateurish grab bag of inaccurate information, writes Stewart Muir

post-image.jpgFour years and $4.5 million later, Canadian taxpayers have the result of the Corporate Mapping Project, a scheme to expose "hidden power dynamics underlying nonsensical and destructive policy outcomes" and "conflicts of interest and malfeasance in the public and private sectors", targeting the people who provide the "fossil fuel" energy required for our daily existence. 

That result: an amateurish database using a freebie mapping tool, riddled with inaccurate, outdated and meaningless information, if the section on Resource Works is anything to go by.

It would be amusing if the idea were not, quite literally, to replace society's current structure with an undefined "post-capitalist alternative". Yet, I'm not in the least surprised. When I first learned of this initiative in November 2015, I took a closer look and shared my findings with Resource Works readers. Here's what I wrote at the time:

Congratulations are due this week to UVic academic Bill Carroll, who along with a network of other Canadian anti-globalization activists has landed $4.5 million in funding over six years from the federal government and a bunch of Canadian universities to run a five-year project called “Mapping the Power of the Carbon-Extractive Sector.” (I have questions about where some of this money is actually coming from, but unfortunately I lack the public funding to find out more at this stage.)

You might already be asking: has anyone told Professor Carroll how easy it already is to create business intelligence about an industrial sector of interest? Or that you don't actually need $4.5 million to find these things out? 

Suppose you are an analyst at a financial firm. You might start with the Bloomberg terminal and see where that leads. Those in sales will look for directories and start mapping their networks to see who’s connected to whom. They might attend a conference to build their personal network of influencers. There’s also LinkedIn, which does a pretty good job of creating and sharing networks. Or you can search public company records through SEDAR and dozens of other openly accessible databases. Registries bring transparency to political donations and lobbying, and anyone with an Internet connection can access them. Then there’s the old-fashioned telephone, where you call a 10-digit number and a person picks up at the other end and you talk with them.

It’s not that hard. I know because in many years as a journalist I investigated everything. There is really no reason why anyone who wants to find out what’s going on in an industrial sector in Canada or the USA can’t find out extensive, detailed information at minimal expense. Anyone with their wits about them could provide a full sectoral profile by investing only a few hours in this kind of research. 

Now, suppose you are an anti-globalization activist with career tenure at a Canadian university, let’s say in the sociology department.

And you wanted to find out who’s who in the zoo of a particular natural resource industry - let’s call it the Carbon-Extractive Sector. (Presumably this means oil and gas, coal, and wood – although, since humans are a carbon-based life form, I can’t be sure exactly where the boundary lies.)

If you were that professor, would you do any of the things I have suggested? Search public records? Use Google? Create a LinkedIn account, attend a conference? Consult a lobbyist registry or, God forbid, talk to somebody in the industry?

You know where I’m going with this. Of course you wouldn’t. That would be way too easy and there is no grant money for simple things. They have to be made far more complicated, and therein is the real mission of this effort.

The underlying thesis here is that the “carbon-extractive” sector is some kind of shadowy, nefarious underground organization that is secretly plotting the destruction of the planet. As every good anti-capitalist knows, the sector masks its dastardly scheme by using publicly traded  companies, in transparent research and research partnerships, through philanthropic giving to charitable organizations that report their funding sources, in job creation that is proudly talked about by unions and companies alike, in paying royalties and taxes that are duly reported in the appropriate public ledgers, and in countless other things that are essentially woven into the fabric of our modern society.

Some secrecy.

It is no fun operating a witch hunt if your witch won’t play hide and seek. Hunting a witch who just stands out there in the open does not create any excitement.

So you have to manufacture the impression that scholars, executives, researchers and anyone else involved in knowing and talking about Canada’s modern, responsible energy economy has something shameful to hide.

Once you’ve done that, you can move on to the next step: let the public shaming begin. 

Am I overreacting to news of the "Mapping the Power of the Carbon-Extractive Sector" project? 

No way.

Consider this. One stated aim of this publicly funded venture is to create a Canadian version of this US website. Products of this group include “Frakademia”, an effort to expose what it describes as “the complex of oil-and-gas-allied academics, think tanks, consulting firms, and public relations shops producing misleading and flawed research to win public and political support for hydraulic fracturing.” Subtopics include:

            • "hidden power dynamics underlying nonsensical and destructive policy outcomes"

            • "conflicts of interest and malfeasance in the public and private sectors"

If the starting premise of such an effort is that the subject you are studying is “nonsensical and destructive” and is based on “malfeasance”, the idea that any principles of scholarship are being employed is nothing more than a ghastly joke.

This is a propaganda effort, pure and simple, and worse than that it is based on smearing the reputations of individuals.

The Canadian version of this pre-baked smear campaign will be funded by $2.5 million in federal tax dollars through SSHRC, matched by another $2 million from Canadian universities and the research group Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (no word on where CCPA is getting its share of that contribution). An Alberta group called the Parkland Institute is also part of the deal.

The new partnership will "enable research and collaboration by citizens, academics and civil society groups, who will receive training and support as a community of wiki contributors is developed."

Ultimately, the idea is to train up a lot of “public intellectuals” who will then be sent out to "actively contribute to public discussions about Canada’s energy policies." 

What kind of contributions might these be? Well, consider this Youtube video by Professor Carroll, featuring his "Gramscian take on knowledge and power" in formulating what is described as a "post-capitalist alternative":

Like the vast majority of people, I am not sold on the rhetoric of anti-globalization and radical disruption of Canadian society that runs through this piece of propaganda video. The idea is to "denormalize" the practice of resource and transportation companies investing in innovation, by placing more obstacles in the way of creating better safety and higher standards. In the woolly thinking of the anti-capitalist, only then can the "true" solutions that industry has been so effectively suppressing over the past few centuries be brought to light.

UVic, according to a news release from the Victoria-based university, apparently found the appeal of Professor Carroll's project impossible to resist and kicked in $730,000. 

Meantime the school’s president recently appeared at the British Columbia government’s pre-budget consultation to report on how the institution is using its $172-million provincial grant. One slide (#12) of his presentation notes UVic’s emphasis on academic programming and research in the area of natural gas, specifically "civil engineering, mechanical engineering, management, Smart Oceans.” 

Mixed messages here. Think of how much more academic programming in support of responsible resource use could be created with $730,000.

UVic is not the only university associated with this initiative. Simon Fraser University, the University of Lethbridge, the University of Northern British Columbia, and the University of Regina are also named as partner organizations.

I can’t help but appreciate the irony that this is happening while Canadian energy and mining sectors are laying off thousands of workers, and while efforts like Resource Works are struggling to keep the doors open. Simply because we work hard and have goals, our tiny team has achieved social media clout that makes us competitive with think tanks employing hundreds of people. My purpose in leading Resource Works is to show that natural resources do matter, and to bring a healthy, science-based, open perspective to important questions, including legitimate climate and environmental issues that we know are difficult and troubling for a very significant share of the population. 

As a graduate of two Canadian universities, I suppose I should be relieved that only one of them is a partner in the Carbon-Extractive Sector Project.

All the same, it is deeply troubling to see public funds being directed away from curriculum delivery to support an initiative to discredit hard working and ethical individuals who, I know from firsthand experience, are doing good work to study greater energy efficiency, to create the revenues that allow hospitals, schools and roads to be built, to fuel the empowerment of First Nations who want to move beyond administering poverty, and to build a strong Canada that can meet the real challenges we have.

I have to call this one as I see it – it’s a travesty. One that’s fuelled by your tax dollars. 

I've written to the president of UVic to ask how Resource Works could be invited into this project so that a balanced and respectful approach can be embedded into this group's research process so that it is worthy of a university of the stature of UVic. 

The reader response I had to this missive was one of the most impassioned since the inception of Resource Works. What I learned is that a lot of people – educated, accomplished, responsible citizens – are at least as fed up as I am with these cheap and divisive tactics.

Epilogue: July 2019

Forty-four months after the initial announcement, the project finally released its findings. UVic (campus pictured below) was so pleased with its use of our dollars and the fact that Professor Carroll finally produced some work that they put out a news release on July 3, 2019.

All of my predictions have come to pass. The project has nothing useful to offer on the promised "conflicts of interest and malfeasance in the public and private sectors". Instead, many organizations received the drive-by treatment. These thinkers even included the National Energy Board of Canada in their witch hunt. What is the NEB's shadowy mandate? It's right there on their website: "The NEB's purpose is to promote safety and security, environmental protection and efficient energy infrastructure and markets in the Canadian public interest. We do this within the mandate set by Parliament in the regulation of pipelines, energy development and trade." Scary stuff indeed.


I looked more closely at the CMP's divinings into the workings of our little group here at Resource Works. The geniuses working under Professor Carroll couldn't be bothered to visit our website and find out who the current Resource Works directors are, even though all of our names are up to date and easily located. Instead, they breathlessly "mapped" the transparent board work of a couple of former directors, both of them well known for their decades of professional accomplishment and distinguished public service, as if this somehow is evidence of something. I don't see anything insightful about the work we do to research and inform British Columbians about the indispensable role of natural resources in our lives. Not surprising, because nobody ever bothered to contact me and ask.

The Corporate Mapping Project (CMP) relies heavily on a free wiki database visualization tool called Little Sis, yet managed to have burned through cash like it's the long gun registry. This could only have been the doing of truly committed post-capitalists. What an extremely thin return on the investment of $4.5 million. Work like this could easily have been completed for the low five figures, and had the added bonus feature of being accurate and possibly even relevant.

Personally, I'd be burying this one and hoping nobody noticed it got funded in the first place. 

But that is not the way of the modern anti-capitalist movement, paid for as it is by public revenues generated in significant part by the natural resource sector.

Now the project to bring about Carroll's post-capitalist, low-energy nirvana is moving to the next step: creating misplaced fear and suspicion at a time when, more than ever, the large problems facing humanity require collaboration and the serious application of research and scholarship.

When I wrote to UVic president Jamie Cassells in 2015 to tell him about Resource Works in the context of his CMP witch hunt, I made these points: 

  • Among our many findings is that without the natural resource economy, BC would be 54 per cent poorer – a state of affairs that I suspect would make it incredibly difficult to maintain our world-leading standards in health care, education, poverty reduction, and empowerment of women.
  • Our group has thousands of individual supporters in the BC resource sector and many of them are from professional networks of university graduates who every day allow our carbon extractive sector to be the best in the world.
  • Cassells as UVic leader emphasized to the BC budgetary consultation process the positive role UVic plays in preparing students for opportunities in the mining, natural gas, manufacturing, forestry and other fields that are necessary for a functioning society.

Cassells never replied to me. The truth is that the outcome of this project was pre-baked before it even got its $730,000. Eventually, in March 2016, a communications officer responded to my follow up inquiry: "I spoke to the Researchers on the project in December, 2015 and at that time, there were no opportunities for engagement."

Quelle surprise. It's quite clear that this project did not, at any point, benefit from the insights of anyone with real-world experience. 

For working professionals who are proud to responsibly power Canada, it is disappointing to think that public universities like UVic are spending public dollars to smear their own graduates who are now working in professions like geology, engineering, computer science, law, accounting, environmental protection, health, education and numerous others that support the responsible production of necessary energy. 

Maybe others ought to try for an explanation. President Cassells' email address is: [email protected]

Stewart Muir, executive director of Resource Works, is a historian and journalist who also trained in relational database design at the University of Queensland, later leading Canada-wide database journalism and innovation projects as a media change leader. 

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