Bruce Carson Scandal Greased by Harper's Oil Sands Agenda

Taxpayer millions set up PM advisor to push petro interests from U of Calgary. A special Tyee investigation.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 27 Apr 2011 |

Andrew Nikiforuk's "Energy and Equity" column runs (at least) once a week on The Tyee. Read his previous pieces for The Tyee here.

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Harper and Carson: Convicted fraudster carried big files for PM.

The record is unequivocal. In the 1980s, the Law Society of Upper Canada disbarred Carson for defrauding clients for tens of thousands of dollars. And in 1990, Carson pleaded guilty to defrauding Budget Car and Truck Rental as well as the Bank of Montreal and Toronto Dominion Bank of thousands of dollars. The crimes appear related to extravagant living and later, a messy divorce.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who dropped his good friend and political confidant faster than a hot potato earlier this year, says he knew about the first set of criminal charges but not the later. But everyone else in Ottawa knew differently: Carson was no shrinking violet.

Changing the mandate

In any case, the fortuitous academic appointment pleased Carson. "It's just one of those opportunities that doesn't come along very often," Carson told the University of Calgary newspaper, On Campus. He said the primary goal was to make Canada and North America the go-to-place for "both the development of clean energy and the protection of the environment."

Carson also made it known that one of his jobs was to contest the dirty character of bitumen, an asphalt-like hydrocarbon that even industry calls an "extreme" and "difficult" resource. "One of the things that really upset me is the slag on the oil sands that it's the production of dirty oil."

The school was a largely an unabashed partisan Tory operation from the get-go. Carson's deputy director, Zoe Addington, previously served two cabinet ministers that Carson dealt with on a regular basis: Tony Clement and Jim Prentice.

Brian Heidecker, the former vice president of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, also chaired the school's board of directors, which included the presidents of the University of Alberta, University of Calgary and University of Lethbridge.

"We don't know how much of Carson's appointment to the school was pre-arranged or whether it was a payment for services rendered as advisor to the PMO," says Conacher of Democracy Watch.

Carson even posted partisan speeches on the school's website. One March 2010 talk to the Tory-friendly Manning Centre admonished Conservatives to keep "faith in leader" and to "Be careful when responding to criticism or bad stories -- will a response kill it, will a response prolong it."

But associates and a variety of sources now charge that what was supposed to be "a centre of excellence for Canada research, policy and advice" became a front for industry lobbying and government propaganda at taxpayer's expense. Moreover the majority of the money for the school never went to energy research.

In fact, one of Carson's first decisions as executive director was to completely change the school's mandate to include working with government on "sound legislation, informed policy, appropriate regulations and public understanding."

The school's 2010 report even states that under Carson's leadership, "the CSEE mandate was re-energized to include a crucial role in the elaboration of public policy on energy and environment as well as informing the climate change debate in Canada and internationally."

Yet the University of Calgary already had two think tanks devoted to public policy including the Imperial Oil funded School of Public Policy headed by Jack Mintz, an economist who sits on Imperial's board. (Carson was also cross-appointed to the Mintz school.)

The university also had the much older and well-respected Institute for Sustainability, Energy, Environment and Economy, a policy driven research think tank. ISEEE's website says it seeks to become "Canada's leading source of valuable insights and critical analysis on how to best transform North American's energy systems."

"The original mandate for CSEE was energy technology not policy," says David Keith, named a Time magazine hero of the environment in 2009 and an ISEE founder and member.

But with Carson at the helm, CSEE became the University's dominant centre for energy policy, and its goals increasingly became focused on shielding the industry from the "dirty oil" label.

Keith also says that Carson may have had some genuine interest in the environment but he really held "an industry driven point of view…. He was working for the PMO and here at the same time. It was pretty outrageous."

(In contrast to Carson's think tank, ISEEE published peer-reviewed studies calling for public transparency and full cost accounting on all oil sands pollution.)

Carson's "re-energized" vehicle didn't invest much in real energy research either. According to the school's corporate plan, only $6.5 million of Ottawa's $15 million for the program actually has been allotted for real research. "Useful work got done, but management was weak and the funding program unimaginative," explains Keith. "It did little to drive clean energy innovation across universities."

In fact, the majority of the federal grant ($9 million) has been slated for Carson's salary, operating expenses and multi-million dollar university site costs.

Lobbying former employers

After changing the school's mandate, Carson immediately resumed contact with the government of Stephen Harper by lobbying for funding for a Carbon Management Canada, a new nationwide research network that would develop "game-changing technologies" and "decarbonize" fossil fuels.

While a temporary employee of the PMO while on temporary unpaid leave from the school in January of 2009, Carson even sent an email to the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative headed by Cassie Doyle, then deputy minister for Natural Resources Canada, applying for funding for Carbon Management Canada on behalf of the Canada School of Energy.

Recent government documents released by Guy Giorno, then Harper's chief of staff, say that the Carson request was improperly dated and therefore no conflict existed. Giorno also says that Carson was carefully subject to something called a "Bruce Carson Conflict of Interest Screen," which effectively prevented Carson from breaking lobbying rules.

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