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Alberta kept oil lobbying records secret for 799 days. That’s bad for democracy — and against the law

Alberta Energy terminated the contract of the person preparing the release of records of its meetings with lobbyists from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Then the ministry said it didn’t have enough staff to handle the request

Seven hundred and ninety-nine days. That’s how long it took for the Alberta government to respond to a simple request for information.

In the summer of 2020, I was trying to figure out what prompted the Alberta Energy Regulator to unilaterally suspend dozens of environmental and economic rules imposed on oil and gas companies — without any public consultations or formal review.

Normally, there’s a paper trail for any major regulatory decision. At least, there should be a paper trail for how decisions are made in a country that — according to industry — has the “most stringent environmental regulations in the world.”

When governments adopt new rules and laws in Canada, the process is supposed to be transparent, so that members of the public can participate.

But in this case, many decisions were mysteriously made behind closed doors.

So I was intrigued when an oil company worker told me that their colleagues from other fossil fuel companies were sitting on a joint committee with the government to make these decisions.

This was not common knowledge. And I had never heard of such an organized arrangement between industry and government to change policy, done in private without any public participation.

In July 2020, I asked the government for copies of the agendas of all the meetings of this committee for a five-month period. I made this request using Alberta’s freedom of information law, which allows anyone to request public records for a $25 fee.

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The law requires government ministries and public bodies to respond within 30 days unless they have a valid reason to refuse.

Soon after my request, Alberta’s energy ministry told me it would take a lot of work to gather this material, and asked me for an additional $571.15.

I eventually convinced the ministry to back off on those additional fees.

But Alberta Energy kept asking for more time, complaining that it was understaffed, eventually setting a new deadline of August 2021 — more than a year after I’d filed the initial request.

It missed that deadline.

In January 2022, I called to ask for an update and was told that the ministry had terminated the contract of the person working on my request — even as they continued to say they didn’t have capacity.

By this point, I had asked Alberta’s Office of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner to investigate. This watchdog concluded an investigation in July 2022 saying that the ministry was breaking the law, and that its lack of response was essentially a decision “to refuse access” to the records. 

In a related investigation, the watchdog also called out Alberta officials for trying to conceal details of what the lobbyists asked them to do. Provincial officials claimed this was all part of internal government advice to be kept secret, but the watchdog rejected those claims.

Sadly, under the rules of Alberta, there are no meaningful sanctions for this blatant disregard for the law.

But why does it matter? What was so important about those files that Alberta Energy was forced to release?

That became extremely clear through an investigation by my colleagues Carl Meyer and Drew Anderson published earlier this week. They spent months reviewing the records of meetings of this unique committee, made up of members of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the provincial government.

The committee was led by senior oil executives, a political operative from the UCP government and senior public servants. The oil companies set the agenda and drove the conversation around an initial list of 132 items — a list that appeared to expand as time went on.

Directly affected First Nations weren’t invited to the meetings and the public was kept entirely in the dark about what the committee was doing.

Based on what we could confirm, the Alberta government agreed to half of the requests that temporarily rolled back oversight for everything from wetland protections to oilsands monitoring to tailings ponds. They continue to withhold documents that might reveal what happened after the fall of 2020.

As Carl and Drew wrote in their story, there’s nothing unusual about the oil and gas industry, which employs tens of thousands of people in Alberta, lobbying to protect jobs. But the level of access, coordination and organization of this sophisticated operation — and the apparent attempt to keep it all secret — is unprecedented.

At these meetings, oil and gas lobbyists had direct access to about 50 public servants and provincial regulators. Carl and Drew spent many days and nights tracking down and contacting every one of the people whose names were on the list of meetings to ask for their perspectives. None wanted to talk at length about what they discussed behind closed doors.

Meantime, the Alberta government was using millions of dollars of taxpayer money to communicate a very different message about the oil and gas industry through its infamous “war room,” which is spreading misinformation and propaganda about fossil fuels and downplaying the industry’s role in causing the climate crisis.

Many of the changes discussed behind closed doors by the committee and adopted were temporary and not considered to have serious implications for public safety and the environment. But some of the requests were part of what one former government official called a longstanding 20-year “wish list” of items Alberta’s oil and gas industry repeatedly tried to push through. It mostly failed, until the COVID-19 emergency provided a crack to put its foot in. 

The story is about both what the government did — make wish list items come true — as well as what it delayed as a result of its private arrangement with the industry lobbyists.

In one of its initial letters to the government in spring of 2020, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers asked Alberta to focus on its dozens of requests, but it also asked the province to delay or suspend any new plans for tougher environmental laws and enforcement.

The lobbyists set the agendas of meetings and, in at least one case, even decided to cancel a meeting when they had nothing to discuss — much to the relief of one public servant who said in one email that she was “swamped” with work soon after the pandemic started in 2020.

And while public officials kept some notes about what happened, other parts may have been off the record. The head of the Alberta Energy Regulator even discussed grabbing a coffee with a senior oil industry executive “to chat a bit more” about a plan to modernize the regulator and “dig a bit deeper into the opportunities … for benefits” in how the province would revamp rules to clean up thousands of contaminated sites.

We don’t know what kind of impact this had. We have no idea what work Alberta would have done to reduce carbon pollution or tackle contaminated sites through a more open and democratic process.

We don’t know those answers yet because Alberta’s former energy minister and current environment minister, Sonya Savage, herself a former lobbyist for pipeline company Enbridge, did not respond to any of our questions.

But giving reporters the silent treatment isn’t going to stop The Narwhal from digging. Stay tuned for more in-depth reporting, investigations and revelations in 2023.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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