University of Calgary and Talisman distance themselves from global warming contrarians

Published by Postmedia News on Friday Sep 16 2011

While one American-based climate change skeptic walked away with a $541 soapstone carving, Talisman Energy and other donors to “research” funds at the University of Calgary received tax receipts as a result of a public relations campaign to cast doubt on global warming science, newly released records have revealed.

The revelations from hundreds of pages of invoices and accounting documents from an internal audit come as the university and Talisman, an Alberta-based energy company, move to distance themselves from the sophisticated international marketing and lobbying effort to discredit scientific evidence linking human activity to climate change.

The “research” funds were set up at the university in 2004 by Barry Cooper, a political science professor, in partnership with an anti-Kyoto Protocol group calling itself the Friends of Science, and public relations firms APCO Worldwide, Morten Paulsen Consulting and Fleishman-Hillard Canada – where Paulsen worked as a senior vice-president before moving over to his current job as a consultant for the university’s school of public policy.

Talisman Energy attributed its $175,000 donation to the fund in 2004 to its previous management, noting that its current position acknowledges that greenhouse gas emissions “pose a scientifically credible threat.”

“Hydrocarbons are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and Talisman looks for ways to leverage technology to improve energy efficiency and reduce our carbon footprint,” said the company’s president and chief executive officer, John A. Manzoni, in a newly released statement. “There is no question that technological evolution will be at the heart of solving the climate issues.”

Talisman was also not immediately able to say Friday whether it would revise its previous tax filings regarding the donation.

A total of $507,975 flowed through the accounts before the university determined they were being used for political activities and shut down the funds in 2007 while severing ties to the Friends of Science. Some of the donations were also made through the Calgary Foundation, a registered charity that was able to issue tax receipts to donors and protect their anonymity.

“The University of Calgary recognizes that there was insufficient management and governance oversight and since that time has undertaken a number of comprehensive initiatives to improve business practices, including a significant internal control and business processes review and a Tri-Council Audit,” the university said in a statement Thursday.

The university also said it was trying to ensure that management and governance processes would be in line with “those of world class research institutions,” but was not immediately able to say whether it made attempts to recover thousands of dollars that were spent on public relations, lobbying, wining, dining, travel and other events and expenses incurred by the Friends of Science.

The “research” accounts, created to support production of a video examining the debate about climate change policies, were also notably used to purchase advertising in Ontario and Quebec for the Friends of Science in the midst of the 2005-06 federal election campaign.

The accounting records, released to Postmedia News through provincial freedom of information legislation, reveal some confusion from auditors over expenses that included the $541 soapstone carving, along with travel expenses for American astrophysicist Sallie Baliunas who travelled from Boston in March 2005 to speak at a Friends of Science luncheon in Calgary. The investigation also questioned whether the climate skeptics group was “double-billing” the university on some of its expenses.

“(The) Friends of Science Jan. 2007 Newsletter indicates that the annual luncheon is to take place May 27th,” said one of the notes from auditors on accounting records. “Is this the luncheon we paid for or is this a duplicate of the ’06 payment?”

One letter prepared by the university auditors also questioned whether the university had rules about receiving donations and paying societies.

“In this case, if funds are being provided to the society to make the expenditures then the university is simply a flow through,” said the letter dated March 27, 2007, summarizing a meeting with the university’s chief development officer, Gary Durbeniuk, regarding the investigation. “Donated funds were provided to the university and donors received a donation tax receipt.”

Baliunas is known for publishing a controversial paper in 2003 that questioned global warming from the 20th century. The paper eventually prompted a journal editor to resign over doubts about its methodology. The research was co-written with Willie Soon, an astrophysicist at the Solar, Stellar and Planetary Sciences Division of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, who has received more than $1 million US in grants over the past decade from energy stakeholders such as ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute and Koch Industries.

Soon has said these grants, unrelated to the University of Calgary accounts, did not influence his research. But Soon urged some colleagues in a 2003 email, uncovered by a Greenpeace USA investigation, to work “as a team” to “weaken the fourth assessment report” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that would be drafted and released several years later.

Exxon, the world’s largest oil company, acknowledged in 2008 that it had also given money to lobby groups questioning global warming science, which delayed action to address the problem. Science academies, such as the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, estimated the total lobbying money investments were nearly $3 million in the year 2005 and had urged the company to stop its practices.

Oil and gas industry stakeholders, in partnership with the federal and Alberta governments, are now running a multimillion-dollar international marketing and lobbying campaign to cast doubts on warnings about the environmental impact of oilsands development and to weaken foreign climate policies that could single out pollution from this sector.

Paulsen, who does communications work for the university’s school of public policy, declined to comment on his work on the project. The director of the school of public policy also sits on the board of directors of Imperial Oil, a subsidiary of Exxon.

Tom Harris, who now teaches a global warming class at Carleton University in Ottawa, said in a letter to the Calgary Herald that he wrote the script of the video and participated in video production and distribution. Harris worked, at the time, for APCO Worldwide, which received more than $120,000 to oversee the project in the absence of an open bidding process for the contract which would have been required under the university’s policies.

While former Talisman CEO James Buckee said that Harris previously `”was used as PR help,” the latter said he did not work with the oil industry executive while working on the video. Harris also said he was not “involved in co-ordinating the project’s initial $175,000 budget.”

A detailed communications plan with the APCO Worldwide logo was released by the university with the accounting records, outlining the $175,000 budget, production and strategy plans to promote the video in the mainstream media by pitching opinion articles and engaging print and broadcast reporters to write about it.

“If APCO was involved in co-ordinating the budget, it would have been at a management level in APCO, not at the technical specialist level at which I worked,” Harris wrote in an email to Postmedia News.

His former supervisor at APCO Worldwide, Evan Zelikovitz, could not be reached for comment.

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