in Wabamun, Alberta on Wednesday, November 7, 2018.  Amber Bracken

Access denied: trying to get into Canada’s ‘premier’ pro-coal gathering

The Narwhal was not given a media pass to the Coal Association of Canada's conference, a worrying action that threatens press freedom

I was feeling hopeful when I made my way to the Coal Association of Canada’s conference registration desk at the Sheraton Wall Centre in downtown Vancouver last week. The association had denied my media request to attend the conference but didn’t share their decision-making process or reasoning. I thought an in-person conversation would help clarify any concerns and hoped it was an oversight. 

Unfortunately, The Narwhal was denied access to the conference without any explanation, despite multiple attempts to learn why. This denial is part of ongoing attempts to prevent journalists from covering events where industry representatives or government officials are gathering.

“It’s really unfair and unreasonable,” president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, Brent Jolly, said of the decision and lack of transparency. It’s crucial to have a diversity of journalists at events and forums like this where important discussions are happening with those who have major influence, Jolly told The Narwhal.  

The Coal Association of Canada represents dozens of members involved in all aspects of the industry from exploration, production, transportation and consulting. It advocates for a vision that “Canadians understand the role and value of coal in Canada.” 

The conference was scheduled in Vancouver over three days. Guests included industry and government regulators as well as government bodies like the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority and the privatized Canadian National Railway Company. Coal producers and miners like Teck Resources Limited, Conuma Resources Limited and Telkwa Mining Limited were also listed as presenters.

An aerial view of Teck Resource's coal min in B.C.'s Elk Valley
Teck Resources owns and operates a number of metallurgical coal mines in B.C.’s Elk Valley that provide coal for steelmaking. Photo: Callum Gunn

I was particularly interested to attend a session by Tim McMillan, from the public relations firm Garrison Strategy, titled, “Advocacy and Resource Development.” McMillan was the former president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a major oil and gas lobby group. He also has decades of political experience, including as the minister of energy in Saskatchewan. 

Since I couldn’t be there, I requested a copy of Garrison Strategy’s presentation but have not yet received a response. 

Public relations firms play a huge role in climate change politics. How they do that is not always obvious. Environmental scientists are worried the risks posed by the climate crisis are being downplayed and important data is being misrepresented. Having reporters in the room to learn how lobbyists, public relations firms, government and industry are working together is crucial.

One of the Coal Association of Canada’s five key values is accountability, promising to be “open and transparent and held accountable for all we do.” The association invites registered media to apply for access to the conference through a form available online. It also states the association “reserves the right to limit and/or restrict media to the conference.”

After my application was denied, I followed up to provide more information about our team, professional record and ethics and offered to answer any questions about our news-gathering process. Despite multiple attempts I did not receive any response.

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The Narwhal’s reporters are telling environment stories you won’t read about anywhere else. Stay in the loop by signing up for a weekly dose of independent journalism.

The Canadian Association of Journalists wrote to the Coal Association of Canada to advocate for The Narwhal’s access but also did not receive a response.

“We’re continually retreating into what I worry is this authoritarian creep, that is becoming more and more pronounced,” Jolly said. “The answer to that is more journalism and more accountability. And if we don’t take that seriously and allow this to continue to slide, we’re going to be in a far worse position in the long run.”

Why we care about coal

We have lots of burning questions about coal at The Narwhal. Our team has covered the industry for years, including stories of coal miners navigating the energy transition. We’ve looked at projects that threaten caribou herds, concerns about pollution in the Elk Valley and corporate influence in government decisions.  

Coal is a major player in the resource extraction industry in Canada. It is a multi-billion dollar industry that employs thousands of people across the country. Canada is ranked 14th in the world for coal production and is one of the top-ten world exporters of coal. The country produced 50 million tonnes in 2021 and exported more than half, according to government data. More than half of the coal produced in Canada is metallurgical coal — used in steelmaking — while the remainder is thermal coal, which is burned to create electricity.

Coal-fired electricity is also one of the biggest contributors to climate change and a major source of toxic pollution. There’s been a shift away from the fuel and coal production in Canada has been declining over the last decade. Nearly five years ago, in 2018, the Government of Canada finalized its commitment to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030. 

The industry still sees a future. “Our product is highly sought-after around the world and by bringing together representatives that span the full supply-chain, we can collectively chart a path forward which ensures a strong future for Canadian coal,” Robin Campbell, the organization’s current president said in a press release about the 2023 conference goals. 

Our reporting using freedom of information requests has revealed how influential lobbyists can be in shaping government policy.

Campbell is a former Alberta finance minister who is well-versed in the political scene. The association is an active lobbying group and policies on coal mining in Alberta have changed after government meetings with Campbell. In 2020, The Tyee reported the Alberta government removed barriers to open-pit mining in much of the Rockies after several meetings with Campbell. There was no public consultation. A large public outcry followed and eventually Alberta’s United Conservative Party was forced to reverse the decision in 2021.

Today coal projects continue across the country including in Alberta’s Rockies and foothills. An underground coal mine near Grande Cache is being resurrected and an open-pit mine in the Crowsnest Pass region is being reconsidered. In B.C.’s Elk Valley, Teck is planning to extend their operations. New projects and expansions are being considered in Chetwynd and Sparwood, B.C., and Hinton, Alta.

The scheduled keynote for the conference, Emily Arthun, CEO of the American Coal Council, wrote an opinion piece in the Duluth News Tribune advocating to keep coal in the conversation as a reliable energy source that keeps America energy-independent and reduces the country’s “exposure to hostile nations.”

“If we fail to support all available energy sources — including coal, nuclear and natural gas — we may find that in just a few short years we too will be asking for coal at Christmas,” Arthun wrote last year.

Arthun, Campbell and McMillan, likely did not have anyone outside of industry documenting what ideas, opinions and strategies they shared. While the media was invited to attend, so far, there has been no coverage of the conference. 

A ‘sustained assault on journalism’

If we shrug and accept that the people making major economic and political decisions can restrict the media, journalist Geoff Dembicki told me, then press freedom will continue to decline.

Last summer, Dembicki was denied access to a major liquefied natural gas (LNG) conference in Vancouver. It’s billed as the largest global liquefied natural gas conference in the world and a big part of the discussion was projects in northwestern B.C. These projects represent billions of dollars in investments and have major implications in the fight against climate change, Dembicki said.

Dembicki, who was reporting for Desmog, has written for VICE, The Tyee, the New York Times, Foreign Policy and the Guardian. He’s also written two books including The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change and has been invited to address a senate committee on energy, the environment and natural resources. 

“There has been really a sustained assault on journalism over recent years. Not just in Canada, but all over the world,” Dembicki told me. He pointed to politicians who have mocked journalists, painted them as the enemy or pushed conspiracy theories about climate reporters. “These denials to conferences that we see are just part of that overall trend of restricting press freedom. I think they represent a fossil fuel industry that’s feeling increasingly emboldened these days because of that political support.”

Alberta Finance Minister Robin Campbell tries on a new pair of moccasins during a pre-budget photo opportunity in Edmonton Alta
Robin Campbell is the current president of the Coal Association of Canada. Before his role as a lobbyist, he was an MLA in Alberta serving as the finance minister and environment minister. Photo: Jason Franson / The Canadian Press

We need journalists, “to fact-check the claims being made by industry and government and to basically ensure that Canadians have an accurate idea of what is actually being done in terms of fighting climate change, or making it worse,” Dembicki said.

As The Narwhal’s mining reporter, speaking with people involved in all aspects of the industry is extremely important. Last year, I attended the Association for Mineral Exploration’s annual conference. I spoke with geoscientists, exploration companies, prospectors, miners, financiers, First Nation representatives, government officials and other journalists.

“Hearing the questions from a diversity of media is really important,” Kylie Williams, director of communications and member relations for the Association for Mineral Exploration, told The Narwhal. “They reflect what the public is asking and what the public is seeking. And we have some work to do as an industry to reach beyond our normal audiences.”

The association has hosted the annual industry conference for the last 40 years. “It’s also a place where we have those difficult conversations,” Williams said, adding even if a journalist was writing stories critical of the industry they would be welcome to attend. “We accept everyone who has press credentials.” She could not comment on any decisions made by the Coal Association of Canada.

I go to conferences to meet people, better understand their work, where they are coming from and what’s motivating them. These conversations and relationships lead to a better understanding of the issues and more nuanced stories.

Being denied access to such a major conference is frustrating, but it doesn’t mean I’ll stop asking questions and looking for answers. 

Updated on Feb. 21, 2024, at 10:04 a.m. PT: This story has been updated to clarify the Canadian National Railway Company is a company and not government owned as previously written. The railway was previously a crown corporation but was privatized in in 1995.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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