In June 2021, a beaming Jason Kenney announced Alberta’s public health measures related to the pandemic would be lifted the following month. “Our lives will get back to normal,” the premier said, breathing a sigh of relief.

As Kenney was telling people about his plans for Alberta’s “best summer ever,” his high-level public servants were neck-deep in private meetings with fossil fuel lobbyists, documents obtained by The Narwhal show. The meetings were the result of months of effort by powerful oil and gas interests to grab the reins of a secretive provincial committee known as the Joint Working Group — initially set up to deal with the economic fallout triggered by COVID-19 — and steer it towards its own interests.

Alberta has largely kept details about this committee and its subcommittees a secret, delaying access to significant chunks of the records and denying access to others. But The Narwhal obtained a few hundred pages of internal federal and provincial government emails and meeting agendas, through a series of freedom of information requests and lengthy appeals in Alberta, after officials in that province initially refused access.

The documents show the oil and gas industry capitalized on the privileged access it commanded at the pandemic’s onset to schedule at least 39 meetings with various government officials between March 2020 and September 2021. Some of these meetings went beyond the lobby group’s original justification for the committee — that the industry needed public help to recover from plunging oil demand and sinking market prices or companies risked shedding jobs. The records also show how industry lobbyists may have disrupted progress in areas such as the fight against the climate crisis through their control and influence over the Alberta government’s policies.

This included resetting the agenda of a summer 2021 meeting that resulted in the removal of a list of topics the government had proposed to discuss. Among the topics stripped away from the agenda of the meeting was a discussion about the importance of eliminating climate-warming carbon pollution from the production of oil and gas.

Dark muddy brown surface in the Alberta oilsands seen from the air cris-crossed with offroad tracks.
While the oil and gas industry was recovering from the pandemic’s heavy blows by mid-2021, oil lobbyists continued to pitch agendas for private meetings with government. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Alberta Energy downplays importance of private committee with oil lobbyists

The same day Kenney made his “back to normal” announcement, June 18, executives from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) met with senior Alberta public servants and an energy regulator official to discuss a wide range of policies and regulations. From environmental liability management and emissions reduction programs to security deposits for oilsands mines and the rules surrounding mineral rights on public lands, these issues could have a direct impact on financial markets, public health or public safety if altered.

While the COVID-19 public health emergency was by no means over by that time, the picture was brightening for Canada’s oil and gas producers. By May 2021, large oilsands firm Suncor had returned to profits, for example, while oil and gas giant Canadian Natural Resources was already swimming in cash. Canadian bitumen production was on its way to reaching record highs, and the industry’s revenues would balloon to $174 billion.

Despite this, oil lobbyists remained in the driver’s seat for the meetings, offering proposed agenda items for the government to discuss with them, or signing off on draft agendas before meetings with senior government officials could take place.

In response to questions from The Narwhal, Alberta Energy downplayed the committee’s importance, describing it as a forum in which public servants could discuss industry issues with industry representatives.

“The working group was an informal listening forum,” Energy Ministry spokesperson Tom McMillan said. “It was not a decision-making body, and explored a wide range of topics … The informal working group has not met since 2021.”

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McMillan did not expand on when specifically the group’s last meeting was, or respond to questions about whether government officials had formed a new committee with the lobbyists or renamed the existing one.

Four provincial ministries refused to accept freedom of information requests from The Narwhal to release records of any meetings over the past two years involving either the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers or the Pathways Alliance of oilsands companies.

The Pathways Alliance is a group of six oil and gas companies operating in Canada that claim to want to address climate change, “with the ultimate goal of net zero emissions by 2050.” However, this goal does not include the greatest share of pollution generated from their operations — after they sell their product to consumers.

Industry viewed pandemic as strategic opportunity to seize government support: expert

Emily Eaton, a University of Regina professor who studies the influence of the fossil fuel industry in Canada, said the working group’s inflated scope shows how the sector has “direct involvement in the creation of regulations and policy on oil and gas in the provinces.”

“It’s not surprising that a committee would be set up to deal with the economic crisis created by COVID, but would extend well beyond the period of public health restrictions, because the industry considers itself in the middle of an existential crisis, fighting to maintain a place in the future of energy production in Alberta and in Canada,” Eaton said.

Eaton compared the industry’s quick action following the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, with the way it responded two years later to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began in late February 2022. In a matter of weeks, the oil and gas lobby was advocating for more Canadian fossil fuel exports to displace Russian supplies, and offering to partner with the federal government to “create the conditions” for this situation.

“If governments make good on their Paris climate pledges, oil and gas will need to be phased down,” Eaton said. “It’s clear the industry saw the pandemic and the war in Ukraine as strategic opportunities to seize more government support for their industry.”

The provincial committee, along with a sister committee involving federal officials, was spearheaded by the lobby group in the spring of 2020, after it sent letters to federal and provincial ministers urging governments to “do no harm” and slam the brakes on any efforts to improve the industry’s environmental performance and sustainability, including climate change mitigation efforts.

In Alberta, this strategy appeared to pay dividends for the lobbyists. Emails and meeting records obtained by The Narwhal show how industry officials were able to tie up public servants by directing their attention toward implementing a longstanding industry “wish-list” of demands.

Eric Denhoff, a former deputy minister in Alberta’s Environment Ministry under the NDP government of Rachel Notley, said the committee’s continued operation past the pandemic’s initial economic shock suggested the industry had put considerable stock into maintaining the lobbying access it had secured.

“Industry was getting a lot of stuff they hadn’t gotten for many years through this process,” he said. “Why would they want to turn it off, if they’re getting results?”

large dump trucks drive down an offroad trail in a dark muddy landscape in the Alberta oilsands.
Public servants encouraged oil lobbyists to bring proposals to the table, and cancelled meetings on occasions when the lobbyists had nothing to talk about. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

In responding to The Narwhal’s freedom of information requests, the government also revealed it shared privileged and confidential information with the oil and gas lobbyists, which ministry officials claimed they could not share publicly.

Denhoff said this shows how average citizens and environmental groups, that don’t have huge resources to throw at advocacy, get drowned out by powerful corporations.

“What we’ve created with the current [lobbying] construct is, that if you have a lot of money, you can overwhelm the bureaucracy and political process with constant lobbying, like CAPP does,” he said. “They have basically a bottomless pit of funds … you have this sheer physical imbalance.”

CAPP sent out proposed agendas for government meetings 11 times

While it’s not clear whether public servants were overwhelmed, the emails released by the government confirm how the lobbyists pushed their top priorities onto the government’s agenda.

At least 11 times between October 2020 and September 2021, a manager at the lobby group sent out proposed subcommittee meeting agendas to officials at the Alberta Energy Regulator and Alberta Energy. Most of these proposals came from Amberly Dooley, while one came from Richard Wong.

In each of her emails, Dooley would ask recipients to send any “questions or concerns” about the agendas to her or Wong. (Wong is now a vice-president at the lobby group, while Dooley is now a director of policy at the Pathways Alliance.)

The records also show how public servants encouraged the lobbyists to bring their proposals to the table, and cancelled meetings on occasions when the lobbyists had nothing to talk about.

Chris Best, then a manager of oil royalty assessments at Alberta Energy, also sent out draft agendas, as well as soliciting suggestions. “Do you have a list of topics to discuss for tomorrow’s meeting that I can use to create an agenda?” Best asked Ben Brunnen, then a vice-president at the lobby group, in a December 2020 email.

Doug Lammie, an assistant deputy minister with Alberta Energy at the time, was also in touch with Brunnen, writing he would cancel two upcoming meetings of the committee and its subcommittee, “in light of no significant items being raised” by the lobby group.

In another email from September 2021, Best sent an industry proposal for an upcoming subcommittee meeting to Lammie. “This is the agenda that [the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers] just sent for the meeting,” he wrote.

Despite all these examples of accommodations for industry, public servants still felt compelled to remind the lobbyists that the government was there to help them.

“Government is committed to listening and evaluating industry concerns,” Alberta Energy’s deputy minister Grant Sprague was expected to tell the lobby group, according to one draft agenda from May 2021.

skyline view of industrial oilsands facilities and emissions in the background.
After a lobbyist intervened in a proposed meeting, the government removed a net-zero emissions topic and demoted a discussion on climate to the bottom of a new list of industry priorities. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

‘Importance of net zero’ scrubbed from industry-government meeting agenda

In one of the instances where the government appears to have proposed a significant agenda item related to climate change, the industry immediately issued changes.

Alberta officials had originally planned a “June or July 2021” meeting of the committee that would feature Sprague, then-energy minister Sonya Savage and Tim McMillan, then the president of the lobby group. (There is no relation between Tim McMillan and Tom McMillan, the ministry spokesperson.)

The government’s proposal, sent by Lammie, from Alberta Energy, was for a discussion on the “future of oil and gas.” A draft agenda for this meeting shows that all three participants were expected to address the “importance of net zero” emissions, as well as how to move from “high to low carbon” pollution. Following the discussion on net zero, Tim McMillan was then expected to speak on climate change, or what officials described in the draft agenda as the “climate file,” as well as public consultations on energy projects and the cleanup of tens of thousands of contaminated oil and gas sites.

Achieving net zero means “cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible,” according to the United Nations. Given that it requires fundamental transformations of global energy, transportation and manufacturing, among other sectors, the UN called it “one of the greatest challenges humankind has faced.” But scientists have concluded that in order to slow irreversible damage to ecosystems and the economy, the world needs to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, which means emissions need to drop to net zero by 2050.

Sonya Savage sits next to Jason Kenney at a table with their names on cards in front of them.
The Alberta government of then-premier Jason Kenney, right, planned a private meeting with oil lobbyists in 2021 that would feature a top bureaucrat and his then-energy minister Sonya Savage, left. Photo: Chris Schwarz / Government of Alberta Flickr

By the time the Alberta government’s proposed net-zero meeting was in the works, the net-zero discussion had become a major theme in Canadian political circles. A federal bill committing the country to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 was weeks away from becoming law. The oil and gas industry knew it would have to make significant concessions toward meeting this goal.

Lammie sent Brunnen the agenda on June 9, 2021, with the offer that the government was “open for feedback, comments and changes” from the lobby group. A week later, Best, also from Alberta Energy, followed up: “Just wondering if you had time to review the agenda that Doug [Lammie] sent and provide comments/changes?” he asked. “We would like to get the agenda sent out so people can be prepared to discuss the topics tomorrow.”

Brunnen wrote back, saying the lobbyists had some “comments.” A few weeks later Best wrote Brunnen to say the ministry had “made the changes to the agenda that you sent on June 21,” and the government “wanted to see if anything changed since and if you wish to modify any of the discussion topics.”

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A later version of the agenda shows then-environment minister Jason Nixon had been added to the meeting. An email from an Alberta government official shows Nixon was being contemplated as part of the mix as early as June 30.

As well, the “future of oil and gas” discussion had been taken over by the oil lobbyists. The overall discussion was now titled “going forward,” and the lobby group would be responsible for speaking on the “future of oil and gas and [the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers] outlook for the industry.” The government would then give its own separate “vision for the sector.”

The net-zero emissions topic had been removed entirely from the meeting, while the “climate file” had been replaced with “climate policy” and had been demoted to the bottom of a new list of “near-term industry priorities.”

Lammie and Best, from Alberta Energy, did not respond to emails from The Narwhal.

Ministry censored details of lobbyist’s conversations with public servants

The Narwhal does not yet know what comments Brunnen made on the proposed agenda, or if he persuaded Alberta officials to drop “net zero” as a topic or change the conversation around climate change to something friendlier to industry terms.

The ministry censored much of the contents of his emails in the documents it released, claiming the information can be withheld under the provincial freedom of information law, since they believe the lobbyist’s message includes “advice from officials” and “disclosure harmful to economic and other interests of a public body.”

Brunnen left the lobby group in June 2022 and is now a consultant in government affairs and public policy at a firm he founded, Verum Consulting. He did not respond to questions sent by The Narwhal about his involvement in the Alberta committee, how accountable he is for the changes made to proposed agendas or what he told provincial officials about topics like climate change or net-zero emissions.

Overhead view of a frozen lake in Alberta with a pipeline running up the middle to a spot in the centre.
Average citizens and environmental groups are getting drowned out by powerful corporations with deep pockets, argued Eric Denhoff, a former deputy minister in Alberta’s Environment Ministry. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers declined to answer any questions for this story, such as what Brunnen told Alberta officials or whether its lobbyists ended up speaking with the government at any point about the importance of achieving net-zero emissions.

“We do not have any further comment to add as the executives mentioned below are no longer at CAPP,” spokesperson Elisabeth Besson said in an email.

The lobby group has said it is committed to meeting the federal goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but it has also argued “any pathway to net zero includes the efficient use of oil and natural gas.”

Alberta Energy took more than a year to release the heavily censored pages and only sent The Narwhal the records in response to orders from the office of a provincial watchdog, the Alberta information and privacy commissioner, which launched an inquiry into the matter and found the ministry was breaking the law.

The Narwhal has also asked the watchdog to investigate whether it was appropriate for the ministry to claim the emails from the lobby group contained internal advice for the government.

The United Conservative Party did not answer questions from The Narwhal, such as why the provincial government continued to meet with industry officials under a committee originally meant to address the pandemic, despite announcing affairs would return to normal, or why oil lobbyists were able to gain considerable influence over the committee planning process.

A new net-zero ‘aspiration’ from a UCP government seeking re-election

Kenney stepped down as United Conservative Party leader in May 2022, quitting politics later that year, and is now a senior advisor at law firm Bennett Jones. He did not respond to questions about the committee or the influence of oil and gas lobbyists on his government’s agenda.

His successor, Premier Danielle Smith, launched an election campaign in late April 2023, ahead of the Alberta election on May 29.

A week and a half before the campaign launch, Smith’s government published a document committing the province to finding “viable policies, pathways and programs to lower emissions.” It refers several times to a new “aspiration” to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but does not qualify net-zero emissions as a target.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith launches net zero 'aspiration' plan weeks before the Alberta election campaign launched.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith labelled the province’s net zero future as ‘aspirational,’ rather than a target. Photo: Chris Schwarz / Government of Alberta Flickr

Savage, who became the provincial environment minister in October 2022, presented the document in April at a press conference, where she made it clear that despite the document’s reference to net-zero emissions, the United Conservative Party was not about to drop its accommodation of oil and gas industry priorities and perspectives.

“Alberta is focused on emissions reduction outcomes and energy security, not eliminating specific industries or types of natural resources,” said Savage, who is not seeking re-election.

“Instead of moving away from hydrocarbons, our plan shows that we are using these resources in new and different ways … the plan recognizes that oil and gas will continue to be a key part of the global energy mix in the coming decades.”

Before entering politics, Savage was a lobbyist for Enbridge, an energy company known for supplying oil and gas through a vast North American network of pipelines. Enbridge has also been in the news this month for being among the most popular companies in the personal stock portfolios of federal politicians and their spouses, according to an investigation by The Narwhal and the Investigative Journalism Foundation.

Eaton, the professor, said it’s hard for governments to “insulate themselves from the interests of industry.”

“In fact, they often see their interests and industry’s interests as synonymous as they derive government revenues from royalties and taxes on this industry all while diminishing the income taxes coming from residents,” Eaton said.

“Increasingly they see themselves as accountable to this industry, not the population. At the same time a revolving door exists between the industry and the civil service, so the lines of communication are open and the culture is shared.”

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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