Alykhan Velshi, EthicalOil.org Founder, Finds Work On Jack Layton's Climate Committee (PHOTOS)

Alykhan Velshi Toronto Atmospheric Fund

First Posted: 09/28/11 08:01 AM ET Updated: 11/27/11 05:12 AM ET

Former Conservative Party strategist Alykhan Velshi is not generally associated with efforts to reduce Canada’s carbon footprint.

But that’s about to change.

Velshi, who has been the driving force behind Ethical Oil -- a pro-industry campaign that aims to re-brand the Alberta oil sands -- was recently appointed to the board of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund (TAF), a city council committee that finances local initiatives that fight global warming, and lists Jack Layton as one of its original founders.

It’s a decision that is drawing fire from critics, who are voicing concerns about an appointment they say defies logic.

According to Velshi, who occasionally blogs for HuffPost Canada, he was drawn to the position by the opportunity to keep an eye on TAF’s bottom line “at a time of economy uncertainty.”

“When I applied for the position, I saw my role on the board as ensuring that TAF fulfilled its mandate, and delivers value for money for taxpayers at a time of deficits,” he says.

Velshi, who was an aide to former Environment Minister John Baird, says his history of working for “environmental causes” was “felt by city Toronto City Council to have given me a good deal of experience to contribute to this.”

“I come into this role with an open mind, and I look forward to TAF’s activities,” he says. “I look forward to serving Toronto taxpayers in this voluntary, unpaid position.”

But while Velshi may have received the approval of the majority of councillors, not all are on board.

As Adam Vaughan sees it, appointing a vocal advocate of oil sands production to a committee devoted to fighting greenhouse gas emissions “blows the mind.”

“We have a group of radical libertarians in the mayor’s office, and they actually think Ethical Oil is an environmental achievement,” he says. “These guys are Orwellian. You can’t make this stuff up.”

EthicalOil.org, the website behind the re-branding campaign, has gained notoriety in recent months for its hard-hitting ads, which position the Alberta oil sands as an “ethical” alternative to the oil produced in undemocratic countries. The ads have ignited a dispute between Ottawa and Saudi Arabia.

Though Velshi announced this week that he is ceding control of the website (a decision he told The Huffington Post had nothing to do with the TAF appointment, but rather a natural end to his commitment to the project), Vaughan remains steadfast in his rebuke.

“I don’t care what organization he does or doesn’t belong to, the last thing he is is a progressive environmentalist,” he says. “He’s just another conservative appointed by an ultra-conservative mayor to undermine environmental initiatives in this city.”

But despite the insinuation that Mayor Rob Ford is behind the appointment, Velshi maintains he has “never spoken to the mayor about this.”

After submitting his application several months ago, he was interviewed by the Civic Appointments Committee, which then recommended him for the position -- the standard process for committee appointments. Council gave its stamp of approval in an in camera vote last week.

“I was appointed by Toronto City Council. I can’t really speak to the rationale,” he says. “All I can really speak to is my application and my own interview. I laid out to you the same thing that I laid out to them in terms of my priorities would be.”

But the decision has also left Ontario NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns scratching his head.

“I don’t understand the logic in making this appointment if you want the Atmospheric Fund to be successful in its programs,” he says. “I think Mr. Velshi will find huge conflict between his commitment to expanding oil production in Canada and serving on the board of a fund whose aim is to substantially reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Though Tabuns says he “won’t presume to speak for Jack,” he says Layton’s vision for the fund as a means to “energetically lead campaigns to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels” is “not consistent with what I’ve heard of Mr. Velshi’s.”

But former TAF chair David Soknacki has a different take. Though he confesses he “chuckled” when he heard about the appointment, he says adding Velshi to the group will inject a fresh perspective.

“If you take a look at the TAF membership right now … there is fair similarity of outlook. A couple of appointments that have a different outlook I think is healthy for any organization,” says Soknacki, maintaining that he was appointed to the fund “for the same reasons.”

“I was put on the board to keep an eye on Jack,” he says, referring to the left-leaning Layton, who helped create the fund in the 1991 with a $23 million endowment from the city.

Velshi’s perspective is one that Soknacki says could prove to be a significant advantage to TAF, particularly in the current climate of austerity.

“If the administration doesn’t feel that an organization is responsive or part of the team, they will be less inclined to protect it,” he says, noting that the fund came under review when he was at the helm.

For her part, Coun. Shelley Carroll, the current TAF chair, says she is interested to learn more about Velshi, whose credentials represent “a first” for the organization.

“I look forward to any new board member that comes fully understanding the mandate, and is ready to help us meet that mandate, both in the investment sense and in the galvanizing the environmental community sense,” says Carroll. “I hope that Mr. Velshi has decided that that’s his new interest.”

Alykhan Velshi's "Ethical Oil" campaign has been one of the more notable attempts at a rebranding in recent history. Check out these other notable rebrandings:

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  • 'Ethical oil'

    The term "ethical oil" has become the centrepiece of a new application for a classic marketing strategy. After being added to the Conservative political lexicon, the slogan is slowly beginning to creep into the public discourse. And like other attempts by industry and advocacy groups to use value judgements to alter public opinion, it has the potential to change the way we think about Canadian oil.

  • Ethical Oil vs Conflict Oil

    Share this video with your friends and family.

  • Ethical Oil

    An ad from <a href="http://www.ethicaloil.org/" target="_hplink">ethicaloil.org</a>, a new site trying to rebrand Alberta's oil sands.

  • Ethical Oil

    An ad from <a href="http://www.ethicaloil.org/" target="_hplink">ethicaloil.org</a>, a new site trying to rebrand Alberta's oil sands.

  • 'Pork. The other white meat'

    In 1987, pork producers in the United States were steadily losing ground to chicken and turkey, which prompted the National Pork Producers Council to take a different tack. To counter the still-widespread belief that pork was a red meat, The New York Times reports that the council set out to appeal to health-conscious consumers by reminding them that pork was in fact <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1987/01/15/business/advertising-dressing-pork-for-success.html" target="_hplink">considered a white meat</a>. The series of print and TV ads that followed featured pork prepared in ways that had been traditionally been reserved for poultry, such as cordon bleu and cacciatore a l'orange, as well as a new slogan: "Pork. The other white meat." (After nearly 25 years, the council recently changed its well-known catch phrase to "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/04/pork-be-inspired-slogan-other-white-meat_n_831331.html" target="_hplink">Pork: Be inspired</a>.") (AP File Photo)

  • Pork Commercial

    Pork, the other white meat.

  • 'Fair trade coffee'

    Though tracing the precise history of the fair trade movement is difficult, most observers agree that the concept was popularized by its application to the coffee industry. The <a href="http://www.maxhavelaar.nl/faq/how-did-it-start?destination=english&backtitle=FAQ's" target="_hplink">first official fair trade label</a> was launched by a Dutch NGO, which imported the pioneering fair trade product -- coffee from Mexico -- to the Netherlands in 1988. Billed as an effort to secure better prices for producers, and guarantee certain environmental and labour standards, the demand for fair trade coffee quickly spread. But it's still a niche item that carries a premium: as The Toronto Star pointed out in 2007, only a small percentage of the java bought by coffee-giant Starbucks is <a href="http://www.thestar.com/living/article/250730" target="_hplink">fairly traded</a>. (Photo: Getty Images)

  • Starbucks is the largest purchaser of Fair Trade Coffee

    Full of rich bodied flavor and great respect for the farmers who grew it. Caf

  • 'Clean coal'

    The notion of coal as a clean source of energy was thrust into the spotlight in the United States in 2008, when a $40-million industry-sponsored campaign helped make it a talking point during the presidential race. An attempt to counter the public perception of coal as an acid rain-causing, environmental scourge, Businessweek observed that the <a href="http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_26/b4090055452749.htm" target="_hplink">"clean coal" campaign</a> tugged at the heartstrings with emotional TV ads featuring teachers and farmers -- and won the endorsement of both presidential candidates. (AP Photo)

  • Clean Coal Ad

    Political

  • 'Blood diamond'

    The recognition in the late 1990s that diamonds were being used to fuel bloody conflicts in African countries like Angola and Sierra Leone prompted the United Nations Security Council to find some way to track the movement of the precious stones. The resulting identification scheme, dubbed the <a href="http://www.globalwitness.org/campaigns/conflict/conflict-diamonds/kimberley-process" target="_hplink">Kimberley Process</a>, was put in place in 2003 to separate so-called blood or conflict diamonds from those used to fund legitimate governments. Though the process remains imperfect, the terminology was cemented in the minds of the general public, and soon found its way into popular culture: Edward Zwick's 2006 film Blood Diamond grossed more than US$171 million. (AP Photo)

  • Blood Diamond - Trailer

    Trailer for the movie 'Blood Diamond'

  • 'Dolphin-safe tuna'

    Dolphins tend to stick close to the surface, making them easy to spot, and easy prey for fisherman angling to catch tuna, which often swim alongside the large mammals. Despite several attempts by the United States government to limit the killing of dolphins by U.S. fishing boats, by 1990 the practice of purposefully ensnaring <a href="http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer793/aer793f.pdf" target="_hplink">dolphins in tuna nets</a> became so widespread -- and so highly publicized -- that it had prompted a public boycott of canned tuna. In response, Congress instituted a consumer labelling program, and canneries that bought from fisherman that steered clear of dolphins started identifying their product as "Dolphin safe." Though the designation initially carried a premium, the program soon spread throughout the industry, making the additional cost worthwhile. (AP Photo)

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