Is Enbridge secretly funding, managing pro-pipeline ‘astroturf’ group in Minnesota?

Is Canadian oil/gas, pipeline industry guilty of same sins of which it accuses Canadian ENGOs?

Well, this is awkward. Only days after Premier Jason Kenney launched a public inquiry into “foreign-funding” of Canadian anti-pipeline activists, an Alberta-based pipeline giant may have been caught doing almost exactly the same thing in Minnesota. It appears Calgary-based Enbridge secretly founded and at least partially funded the “community organization” Minnesotans for Line 3.

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage with Premier Jason Kenney.

What makes this story even more awkward for the UCP government is that Energy Minister Sonya Savage worked for Enbridge from 2006 to 2015. Requests for interviews with Kenney and Savage were not returned.

“Minnesotans for Line 3 is an active, grassroots organization of people who understand how important it is to have reliable energy to power our economy and help maintain everyone’s quality of life,” is how the group’s website describes its membership. Minnesota pipeline executive Bob Schoneberger of United Piping Inc. is credited with starting Minnesotans for Line 3 last year and his “passion is now an organization of thousands of members working together to advocate for Line 3.” Schoneberger died in November.

Searches by the Minnesota Secretary of State and the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board for Energi Media show that Minnesotans for Line 3 does not appear to have a formal legal structure.

The group’s Facebook page and website do not disclose involvement by Enbridge.

The website, however, does list four members of an “advisory council,” all of whom are connected to Enbridge through Schoneberger’s company: Mel Olson and Abby Loucks, who work for United Piping Inc., which shares an address with Minnesotans for Line 3 according to the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board; Todd Rothe of JR Jensen Construction, which lists Enbridge and United Piping Inc. as clients; and Matt Gordon of Gordon Construction LLC, a joint venture located in Bemidji, Minnesota, a joint venture company formed by Gordon Construction and United Piping Inc., according to the website.

Interview requests submitted to Olson, Loucks, and Gordon were not returned.

Source: Public filings from database of the US Federal Communications Commission.

No executive officers of Minnesotans for Line 3 are listed on the group’s website. That information, however, is to be found in several Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filings. Section 73.1212(e) of the FCC rules for broadcasters requires that “a list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or of the board of directors of the corporation, committee, association or other unincorporated group, or other entity shall be made available for public inspection…”

Minnesotans for Line 3 ran TV ads on several Minneapolis-St. Paul stations during the summer of 2018, according to an extensive search of the FCC online database by Energi Media. The disclosure forms list the officers as Schoneberger; Al Monaco, Enbridge CEO; John Whelen, Enbridge executive VP and chief development officer; and Cynthia Hansen, executive VP and president, gas distribution and storage.

Disclosures filed with the FCC by other stations that ran Minnesotans for Line 3 ads list Schoneberger as the contact, but fail to include the executive members even though they are required by law to do so.

According to Professor Richard W. Painter of the University of Minnesota Law School, the arrangement looks suspiciously like one of the astroturf organizations – “synthetic” grassroots groups meant to mask who is really pulling the strings – springing up in Minnesota to promote major resource projects, including large mine projects.

Professor Richard W. Painter.

“It’s a fairly common practice for out-of-state, particularly foreign, companies that want to do business in Minnesota to set up ‘fraud organizations’ that make a company sound like the whole operation is as Minnesotan as possible,” President George W. Bush’s former ethics lawyer said in an interview. “Enbridge is not alone in trying to do business this way in Minnesota.”

From the perspective of Professor Jane Kirtley, Silha professor of media ethics and law at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, the issue is about ethics and transparency.

“They present themselves as acting in the public interest while they’re actually working on behalf of another corporate or political sponsor,” she said in an interview. “Unfortunately, when we look around at what’s going on in the United States in general, astroturfing is becoming increasingly common.”

Enbridge was contacted multiple times for comment and did not return phone calls or emails. Velocity Public Affairs of St. Paul, Minnesota also did not respond to a request for comment.

“Astroturfing is something that I just find so abhorrent because you know, to me it simply comes down to the fact that you don’t have enough confidence in the message that you want to convey to own it,” said Kirley. “Especially in this era of so-called fake news.”

Professor Jane Kirtley.

Both Kirtley and Painter argue that the apparent astroturfing conducted by Enbridge is an issue of accountability and transparency, being upfront with citizens. Ironically, this is the same argument blogger Vivian Krause makes in her “research” about US foundation-funded anti-pipeline activists that was the basis for the Alberta public inquiry.

When Kenney announced the inquiry last week, Tim McMillan, CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, welcomed “a public inquiry into foreign-funded influence into Canada’s oil and gas industry. Our industry has shared its concerns with both levels of government for some time…” Industry can’t have it both ways, decrying a relatively small amount of funding by American foundations while acting unethically itself.

Kenney should either call off the inquiry or modify the terms of reference to allow forensic accountant Steve Allan to inquire into industry practices, including those of industry-funded groups in Canada like CAPP. Questions raised by Enbridge’s apparent role with Minnesotans for Line 3 suggest the industry has its own issues to answer for.

Fair should be fair for both sides. If either side is engaging in shenanigans, Albertans deserve to know the truth.

Editor’s note: The story first broke June 6 in DeSmog, an anti-fossil fuels blog and appeared again in a Duluth Tribune op-ed last week. Energi Media followed their leads, verified some of the information to our standards, and provided expert context.


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