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‘Anti-Alberta’ inquiry points finger at media and environmentalists but finds no wrongdoing

The controversial and over-budget two-year probe, which has been criticized as a politically charged effort to discredit environmental organizations, recommends promoting the energy sector

The often-criticized and much-delayed public inquiry into the so-called anti-Alberta energy campaigns has released its final report, finding no evidence that environmentalists targeted by the multimillion dollar investigation did anything wrong.

The report also was unable to determine whether campaigns caused project delays, cancellations or triggered any impacts on jobs, citing economic forces that have reduced investments. However, Commissioner Steve Allan concluded his report by pointing a finger at environmentalists and the media for contributing to polarization, while endorsing a view that some people are “alarmist” about the climate crisis.

“This tactic of communicating through extremism has the potential to seriously undermine positive outcomes,” he writes in the report. 

“The environmental movement can be given credit for raising the issue of climate change on the national agenda. But I am concerned the discussion has become polarized and paralyzed to the extent it is nearly impossible to raise questions or make suggestions that don’t align with the agenda of the ENGOs, which is often supported by the media.” 

The report did not include any substantial evidence to support these findings about the role of the media or environmental groups in triggering polarized debates. Allan also noted his report was “not an inquiry into the science of climate change.”

Energy Minister Sonya Savage said at a news conference on Thursday that the threshold to prove misinformation was too high, and therefore not specifically mentioned in the report. She appeared alone at the news conference, with Allan not available to take questions.

She said Albertans should read the 657-page report and come to their own conclusions.

Allan, a forensic accountant, said in the report that it was not his task to determine if opposition “to the development of Alberta’s oil and gas resources is ‘misleading or false,’ nor whether that development is ‘economic, efficient and responsible.’”

Pursuing misinformation was removed from the inquiry’s terms of reference part way through his mandate.

Martin Olszynski, an environmental law professor at the University of Calgary who made submissions to the inquiry, says it’s “bogus” to suggest the inquiry couldn’t examine whether campaigns were based in misinformation, and would not require the threshold outlined by Savage. 

He said he personally submitted years worth of reports to the inquiry that would have legitimatized the environmental concerns outlined by the organizations in question. 

“In some respects, it’s very much par for the course, in the sense that it appears to be very much just a kind of a continuation of this government’s perpetual grievance against its perceived enemies,” he said of the report.  

“And this report will provide bait for those organizations, for those individuals, who want to be angry about these kinds of things.”

The inquiry received four deadline extensions over two years and saw its budget increase from $2.5 million to $3.5 million.

It was widely criticized by environmental organizations, including those named by the inquiry, as a political witch hunt seeking to discredit organizations working to fulfill their mandates.

Ecojustice, an environmental law charity that challenged the inquiry in court on the basis that the terms of reference demonstrated the inquiry was biased, said the inquiry was a “colossal waste of time” and “sets a bad precedent for public inquiries in Canada.”

“The report only confirms what we have said from the beginning: the inquiry was a witch hunt launched solely to intimidate people and organizations who — in response to the threats the climate crisis poses to our health, environment and economy — are standing up to rampant development of Alberta’s oil and gas resources,” Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice, said in a statement. 

“The ‘findings and evidence’ compiled in the report amount to a very expensive Google search – it could have been the summer job of an Albertan teenager. Albertans should be asking why a report based on online searches took so long and ended up costing taxpayers millions of dollars. “ 

In total, the report found approximately $54.1 million in funding for “anti-Alberta resource development activity” campaigns came from outside Canada between 2003 and 2019. That’s out of a total of $1.28 billion in foreign funding the inquiry says went to Canadian-based environmental initiatives over that time. In other words, about four per cent of international funding for environmental initiatives was put toward campaigns that fell under the inquiry’s purview.

The inquiry says it believes the number is understated and notes that it only looked at 31 environmental organizations. 

Philanthropic funding, like business investment, often crosses international borders. A 2020 report by Stand.earth, Environmental Defence and Equiterre found that more than 70 per cent of oilsands production is owned by investors and shareholders outside the country’s borders. 

Olszynski said it’s remarkable that in the end, the inquiry found less money than many people expected. 

“When you sit down and actually look at the numbers and look at what Steve Allan has written, and what he has said, then it’s essentially an exoneration of environmental groups for doing what is entirely their democratic right to do, which was to oppose what they consider to be unsustainable or unbridled oil and gas development,” he said. 

“The government is, of course, spinning very hard to try to make this out into something else.” 

Despite the inquiry’s findings and despite a recent report from the International Energy Agency that says countries like Canada will be hit hardest in the shift away from fossil fuels due to its high-cost and high-carbon industry, Savage repeatedly laid considerable blame for the state of Alberta’s oil and gas industry and the feet of environmental organizations on Thursday. 

“These groups were real, they targeted it, they celebrated it when the projects were cancelled,” she said. 

“And I’m pretty convinced that they’re not the sole cause, they’re a pretty darn big cause of what happened to all our energy projects in Alberta.”

The provincial government launched the inquiry as part of Kenney’s 2019 election campaign promise to push back against “anti-Alberta” activities, which he blamed for a slump in the oilpatch as major expansion projects were cancelled and thousands of workers lost their jobs.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney satnds at a podium.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney made big promises when he launched the inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns, including the potential for legal action. Photo: Government of Alberta/Flickr

He made big promises when he announced the launch of the inquiry in July, 2019. 

“It will investigate all of the national and international connections, follow the money trail and expose all of the interests involved,” he said at a news conference to mark the occasion. 

“It will find out if any laws have been broken and recommend legal and policy actions where appropriate.”

The final report from the inquiry makes six recommendations that have little to do with the so-called anti-Alberta energy campaigns and rather focus on bolstering the oil and gas sector, including a public relations campaign.

Allan’s report also criticized the Kenney government’s “war room” that was created with an annual $30 million budget to promote the oil and gas industry, concluding it was ineffective.

“It was created as a Crown corporation, which may be appropriate, but its governance, and accordingly its credibility, is seriously compromised by having three provincial cabinet ministers comprising its board of directors,” the report said. “I have highlighted criticisms of the governance of the not for profit/charitable sector elsewhere in this report; these same criticisms of the need for independence, openness, transparency and accountability apply to the Canadian Energy Centre as well.”

He also said the centre was likely “damaged beyond repair” after coming under “almost universal criticism” for its early performance. 

In its place, Allan suggested that Alberta’s energy industry needs to come up with a marketing strategy that is more like the campaigns from companies like Exxon Mobil, McDonalds or Apple, that focus on consumers and their everyday lives.

At the same time, Allan noted that research showing the public trusts non-profit groups more than they trust energy companies.

Olszynski, who previously worked as a lawyer for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the federal public service, was skeptical.

“I mean, the one recommendation is essentially build a war room, but maybe scrap the one you have right now?” Olszynski said. 

The inquiry’s six recommendations are: 

  • Increase transparency and accountability for non-profits and charities
  • “Create an opportunity for meaningful dialogue” with First Nations communities to focus on economic development
  • Create an initiative to increase collaboration to advance Alberta as an international energy leader 
  • Develop world-class gathering and reporting on greenhouse gas emissions data;
  • Develop a natural resource strategy for Canada;  
  • Rebrand and promote Canadian energy. 

“These recommendations are not focused on seeking retribution, attaching blame or seeking damages from anyone; rather they are oriented to the future,” reads the report. 

“They address public policy initiatives that I believe will help Albertans come together and move forward constructively to continue to make a positive contribution to Canada building on our natural resources, our ingenuity and our entrepreneurial spirit.”

Updated Oct. 21, 2021 at 3:40 p.m. MT: This article was updated with additional information from the inquiry report, additional context, and reaction.

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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).

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