The Alberta government has officially launched its C$30-million “war room” to counter what it claims is misinformation about the province’s fossil industry.
“The operation, set up as a private corporation and officially titled the Canadian Energy Centre, will be headed by former [United Conservative Party] candidate Tom Olsen, who lost to the NDP’s Joe Ceci in the recent provincial election,” CBC reports. Olsen will be paid $195,000 per year for his efforts.
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“Our starting point is that Canadian oil and gas makes the world a better place,” Olsen said at a launch event Wednesday. “There will be a demand for fossil fuels for years to come and Canada, with its focus on environmental rights and human rights, is ideally positioned to meet that demand.”
The centre’s eight staff include Claudia Cattaneo, who recently retired as a relentlessly pro-fossil columnist for the Financial Post. Her new job title is executive director, content.
Reporting from an Energy Centre release, CBC says the war room will have three components: a “rapid response” function to send out “swift responses to misinformation spread through social media”, an “energy literacy” unit to “create original content to elevate the general understanding of Alberta’s energy sector,” and a “data and research” unit to “reinforce this story with factual evidence for investors, researchers, and policy-makers.”
As of Thursday morning, though, the war room wasn’t doing so well with that data and research thing. “Good morning, @CDNEnergyCentre rapid response team,” tweeted Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner Keith Stewart. “It’s been 17 hours since I tagged you re 3 climate-related misrepresentations on your ‘Welcome to Cdn Energy Centre’ page. You corrected the error re being a Crown corporation, so I hope you will correct the record on climate.”
In fact, by setting it up as a private entity and not a Crown corporation, the Jason Kenney government managed to exempt the centre from access to information laws.
The war room “is part of an aggressive push by the UCP government to promote the province’s oil and gas industry, the primary driver of Alberta’s struggling economy,” CBC writes.
“We were not doing nearly enough to tell the truth in response to a campaign of lies, of defamation and disinformation based on torqued, dated, and incomplete and out-of-context attacks on our energy sector,” said Kenney during the launch. “What I personally, and I think Albertans, find unacceptable is that our industry has been placed in a double standard compared to energy produced in places like Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.”
But despite Kenney’s combative tone and his government’s obsession with supposed “foreign-funded radicals” opposing Alberta fossil development, Olsen maintained the war room would strive for a “hopeful, unifying and uplifting” tone.
“We will be informative, positive, and educational—but not shy away from difficult topics,” he said, adding that the centre will “push back where falsehoods are spread” using social media, paid media, and advertising.
That kind of plan has raised concerns the centre “will cast such a wide net it will ensnare people’s right to freedom of speech,” iPolitics writes. “Kenney has publicly said the war room will target politicians, media, and other ‘opinion leaders’,” and “before the Alberta election last spring, Kenney promised to set up a government-sponsored ‘fully staffed, rapid response war room’ that would ‘effectively rebut every lie told by the green left’.”
In response to that image of the new centre as a “partisan weapon against Kenney’s political enemies”, the publication adds, Amnesty International warned in September that both the war room and the province’s inquiry into supposed foreign-funded radicals “pose threats to the freedoms of speech and association, undermine the urgent work of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, set back efforts to address the climate crisis, and expose human rights defenders to intimidation and threats.”
“Nobody is proposing to trample on anybody’s free speech,” Kenney responded at the launch Wednesday. But “if there are folks, if there are organizations that use their free speech to put misinformation into the public square, we will respond. That’s not attacking freedom of speech, it’s responding to the content of the speech. That’s called public discourse. And the CEC will do it with respect, civility, and professionalism.”
As iPolitics notes, that would be the same Jason Kenney who responded to Moody’s Investors Service’s downgrade of Alberta’s credit rating last week by accusing one of the world’s most established financial service agencies of “buying into the political agenda emanating from Europe, which is trying to stigmatize development of hydrocarbon energy. And I just think they are completely factually wrong.”
With that statement, “Kenney all but accused Moody’s of being part of the foreign-funded conspiracy he claims is out to landlock Alberta’s oil,” CBC columnist Graham Thomson wrote at the time.
“It is very useful to have enemies when you’re trying to have a polarized approach to success,” said Duncan Kenyon, Alberta director of the Pembina Institute, a think tank that works with an array of stakeholders including the province’s fossil industry. “And it’s easy to characterize, to paint everyone as one, and Pembina gets sort of lumped into an ‘enemy’ bucket.”
At a time when Alberta needs to have some “hard conversations” about its current business strategy and its future in a carbon-constrained world, “we’re actually entrenching in this game of PR sound bites and polarization,” Kenyon added.
Earlier in the week, Kenney took a two-day trip to Ottawa that included a “frank” but civil talk with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. National Observer reports the list of expectations he laid down for the meeting included a “fixed deadline” for completing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, repeal of key improvements to the federal environmental assessment laws, approval of the massive and financially tenuous Teck Frontier tar sands/oil sands megaproject, and recognition of Alberta’s methane controls as equivalent with federal regulations.
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson responded the government is “open to how we implement” the new Impact Assessment Act, which ran a tortuous path through Parliament as Bill C-69, but “we’re not opening the law itself.”
“The law is the law. We are not going to inject uncertainty for business, in terms of reopening a law that was firmly and ferociously debated,” he said. “We are moving on and we’re certainly happy to engage the conversation around implementation.”
But despite endless drama before Kenney’s meeting with Trudeau, Thomson writes, “any fireworks in the room had fizzled by the time Kenney made it to the microphone to speak with journalists” afterwards. A scant 10 days after declaring to his party’s annual general meeting in Calgary that “come hell or high water, Alberta will get a fair deal!”, the premier struck a noticeably different tone.
“I made the case for action by the federal government as strongly as I could,” he said. “I appreciate the prime minister listened and seemed to be responsive on a number of points.”
Thomson recounts the extra heft Kenney tried to attach to the trip—an entourage of eight provincial cabinet ministers, and front-page wraparounds and Ottawa’s two local newspapers to lay out his demands. After all that, Trudeau said he was “willing to listen to our case,” the premier told reporters.
“No commitments, no promises, no assurances,” other than to “carefully consider Kenney’s pleas,” Thomson writes. “If they gave out medals for high-level political meetings in Ottawa, Kenney just received a participation ribbon.”
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