The Lac-Mégantic disaster last summer shocked Canadians. The derailment of a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil caused a massive explosion that destroyed the heart of the Québec town, killing 42 people, with an additional 5 missing and presumed dead, and destroying more than 30 buildings – half the community’s downtown. The calamity underscored the dangers associated with transporting large amounts of crude oil by rail and was a public relations disaster for a Canadian oil industry that is aiming to ratchet up oil transport in order to bring increasing amounts of Alberta tar sand oil to market.
Enter petro-propagandist Ezra Levant and his sidekick Greg Renouf. In an attempt to deflect attention away from the dangers of transporting oil, Levant used his Sun News Network show on July 8th to argue that the disaster was the result of “eco-terrorism” and pointed his finger at “Canadian anarchists”. Levant’s original rant has been removed from the web by Sun Media for reasons unknown but according to one person who saw it, Levant argued that, to paraphrase, “There is a real possibility this event was caused by eco-terrorists or even regular vandalism...after all, there is plenty of slow-burn eco-terrorists in Canada.” Renouf appeared on the show to back up Levant’s speculation by drawing a non-existent parallel between the accident in Québec and the activities of protesters against the reversal of the Line 9 oil pipeline in Ontario and anti-tar sands activists in Alberta. Renouf was erroneously introduced as a “freelance journalist” in a transparent effort to beef up his credentials. In fact Renouf, like Levant, is not a journalist at all but a polemicist and conspiracy theorist. The term “freelance journalist” refers to someone who sells their stories to media outlets but is not on staff. Renouf has not only never worked as a paid journalist either on a freelance or staff basis but none of his “stories” have ever appeared in any media outlet other than his own blog and a blog called “A Voice for Men” the organ of the extremist anti-feminist Men’s Rights movement. Regardless, Levant clearly inflated Renouf’s credentials in an effort to make him look like a credible journalist rather than what he is, a blogger with an axe to grind against political activists he feels have personally wronged him in some way.
Police have ruled out the possibility that the disaster was the result of terrorism or sabotage and instead human error, cost-cutting procedures by the company such as leaving trains parked and unattended with the engine running overnight, lack of maintenance as well as the dangers incumbent in transporting oil and other volatile chemicals by rail, appear to be the true cause of the calamity.
Levant is an unrelenting lobbyist on behalf of oil interests. He frequently uses his program, The Source, as a bully pulpit to attack the environmentalist movement, alternative energy, Northern Gateway pipeline opponents, anti-Line 9 protesters, anti-tar sands activists and others who he views as enemies of the oil industry. While the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, to which Sun News Network belong, has ethical guidelines regarding journalists and conflict of interest, Levant habitually fails to disclose his own economic conflict of interest. He is the author of Ethical Oil, a simplistic polemic which juxtaposes Canadian oil against Middle Eastern oil and argues that the Canadian product is moral by comparison because Canada is a liberal democracy and Saudi Arabia is not. However, he dismisses environmental concerns about the much higher carbon footprint created by extracting tar sand oil and ignores environmentally friendlier alternatives to oil. Levant is not only ideologically committed to the oil industry but derives a significant income from his efforts boosting it. His book is a bestseller due in no small part to the oil industry purchasing copies en masse for use in their lobbying efforts. Levant also earns speaking fees for his talks to oil industry related conferences and meetings and his Ethical Oil Institute accepts donations from the petro industry; Levant is one of the organization’s two board members and shareholders and has not disclosed whether or not he receives an honorarium or salary for his work on behalf of the institute.
Renouf is a former hanger on in the “Occupy” movement who turned against it in part because Occupiers did not adopt his ideas but largely for personal reasons after individual Occupiers intervened in what they alleged to be his unacceptable public conduct towards his ex-girlfriend who was also an Occupy activist. Renouf then turned to his blog to publicly attack and harass these individuals and, when Occupy Vancouver closed ranks and expelled him until and unless he desisted in his activity, he declared war on the entire Occupy movement. When he relocated to Toronto, he carried on his vendetta there and expanded it against activists in general – justifying his behaviour by concocting a complex conspiracy linking all his real and imagined enemies. He started getting attention from right wingers and, buoyed by the validation and attention he received from them, reimagined himself as a “journalist”, and used his fantasy occupation as crusader journalist to justify his obsessive behaviour. Apart from the fact that Renouf lacks any journalistic skills –he’s a poor writer and a shoddy researcher who engages in tunnel vision and, as a result, is quite prepared to torture or invent facts in order to fit his agenda, he is a conspiracy theorist who relies on tenuous links between people, or even non-existent links that exist only in his imagination, in order to argue for some grand but murky conspiracy. No wonder Levant likes him, they’re mirror images of each other.
What is most disheartening is that Renouf and Levant chose to capitalize on and exploit a human tragedy in order to further their political agenda.