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Behind The Narwhal’s reporting on a leaked TC Energy recording

Here’s how we went about investigating claims made by an executive working for Coastal GasLink’s parent company

“You’d be surprised how much work I actually get done in the cooler at Costco because I bump into a significant minister or bureaucrat that I really want to spend some time with and I can do that next to the strawberries or the romaine lettuce.”

That’s a quote from Liam Iliffe, now a former executive at TC Energy (and an ex-BC NDP staffer), talking about the energy company’s ambitious lobbying efforts that he claimed leveraged all sorts of political connections to get pro-pipeline messaging “stuck on government letterheads.”

He was talking at a “lunch and learn” session in late March at TC Energy, the Calgary-based pipeline giant that owns Coastal GasLink — and The Narwhal obtained a leaked two-hour recording of the call.

That leak spurred weeks of meticulous reporting by northwest B.C. reporter, Matt Simmons, and managing editor, Mike De Souza, as they sought to look into all the claims made on the recording. (Both TC Energy and the B.C. government deny Iliffe’s claims — and B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma has asked for a watchdog probe into the alleged lobbying tactics.)

I chatted with our star duo about the behind-the-scenes details of the reporting process, which was no easy undertaking — we were even scooped by the National Post. Read on for more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did this story come to be?

Mike: Like many stories, this one started with a leak.

We wouldn’t ever want to rush out with a story under these circumstances. There are a lot of steps we take at The Narwhal to not only to verify whether a leaked document or file is real, but also to ensure we have done our research to provide context about any outrageous quotes or claims that may or may not be true. 

In this case, Matt and I made an effort to verify every statement from that recording we used in our published work. In some instances, we were unable to verify the claims made by the former TC Energy executive — and in others, we included denials so that our readers can look at all of the information and judge for themselves.

What were your first impressions when you heard the recording?

Matt: Confirmation. So much of the reporting we do involves looking through government documents and corporate records trying to find links between the fossil fuel industry and government. We all know oil and gas companies are powerful entities but when it comes to their interactions with government, some of the back and forth between senior government officials and industry executives can occur in private conversations — without necessarily being documented on paper. It’s exceedingly rare that the public is given an inside look at how companies discuss their strategies and tactics — the recording gave us a unique glimpse into what that looks like from the perspective of a fossil fuel executive.

What were some of the most shocking things you heard?

Mike: I thought it was interesting that there were a number of people on the call and we didn’t hear any of them openly challenging or criticizing some of the statements made about surreptitious lobbying activity. There only seemed to be some action and consequences two months later after Matt asked the company about the recordings.

Iliffe, the TC Energy executive, quit after you started the reporting process. Can you share any behind-the-scenes details on that?

Matt: Four days after we sent Iliffe and TC Energy questions, we received an email from a gmail account with his apology and telling us of his resignation. At the same time, we saw that his LinkedIn account and Twitter were deleted.

I think it’s interesting that the recording includes claims about how TC Energy has influenced the media, sometimes placing stories in publications or seeking favourable coverage.

Mike: Soon after we requested interviews and sent questions to TC Energy, another publication, the National Post, managed to obtain its own copy of the internal recordings and also secured some detailed comments and reaction from a senior vice-president at the company to include in their story.

I don’t believe this allowed TC Energy to get any particularly favourable coverage since the Post wound up producing what I consider to be a hard-hitting story that may actually just amplify the revelations in Matt’s reporting — and spark more interest in The Narwhal.

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Our readers should know you transcribed the recording manually. How long did that take you?

Matt: A long time. We were working on transcription for several days, off and on, as we simultaneously started our research and drafting questions to send to the company and implicated government departments and elected officials. 

Mike: We often need to do this for sensitive recordings with any potentially stunning revelations. We made that decision to avoid using any AI transcription services that would result in any of our files winding up on the hard drive of a third party. It’s about ensuring we are protecting all material we are using in our stories, before they are published and also about ensuring we are doing everything we can to protect any sources who have talked to us in the course of an investigation.

The story doesn’t stop here — there’s more to come. Can you tease a bit more?

Matt: With more than two hours of recordings, there is much more for us to look into, as we try to corroborate some of the claims we heard. 

Mike: We will also be watching carefully to see whether the B.C. registrar of lobbying opens an investigation or produces any reports about our reporting on the leaked tape now that we know the province’s attorney general, Niki Sharma, has asked for a review.

Matt: I’ve been reporting for years on B.C.’s burgeoning liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector and TC Energy has long been a major player in industrial development in the north, especially with its recently completed Coastal GasLink pipeline. Much of what we heard on the recording relates to that work and I’ll continue to dig into the implications and consequences for the climate, government policy and communities.  

Anything else you want readers to know about?

Mike: A big thank you to the thousands of readers who have become members of The Narwhal and support our reporting every day. It is obviously not a walk in the park to review two hours of tape and turn it into a comprehensive article. 

For weeks, I watched Matt navigate a lot of obstacles to ensure we could complete this investigation. I’ve worked in the past in newsrooms where reporters wouldn’t necessarily have the resources and time to do this work, but it’s our readers who give us the flexibility to allow someone like Matt to spend all this time transcribing tape, traveling, digging for sources and compiling questions to get answers to important questions that have an impact on many lives.

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