Probe into alleged anti-Albertan energy campaigns doesn’t have time to check facts: commissioner
A year after Alberta launched an investigation into whether alleged “foreign-funded special interests” are spreading false information about the province’s energy industry, the commissioner leading it says his team hasn’t neither the time nor the resources to prove whether particular statements are misleading or untrue.
Monday, in a update to the remit that changes the scope of the public inquiry into anti-Albertan energy campaign financing, Commissioner Steve Allan wrote that he had neither the time nor the resources for the “colossal undertaking” that it would be to verify facts. made by these campaigns.
“In many, if not most, cases, assessing whether a statement made against the development of Alberta’s oil and gas resources is ‘misleading or untrue’ is an enormous and impossible task for the commission to undertake within the limits resources available to it,” Allan wrote.
The investigation says it still retains another part of its original mandate: auditing the books to determine whether money from outside Canada funded environmental campaigns against Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
There are no regulations preventing environmental groups from accepting money from outside of Canada, and no law preventing an environmental group from advocating for a lawsuit.
The terms of the investigation have been changed before, with an Order-in-Council change that suggested foreign funding of anti-Albertan energy campaigns may not have taken place. The terms originally stated that “the commissioner shall investigate anti-Albertan energy campaigns that are supported, in whole or in part, by foreign organizations”, but this was amended in June to state that the “commissioner shall investigate the role of funding, if any, of anti-Albertan energy campaigns.
With Monday’s latest change, critics rushed to question the very purpose of the survey.
“The commissioner said he doesn’t have the time or the resources to determine what is false and misleading information. It’s a bit of an eye-opener for us. We’re wondering what is a commission for?” asked Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice.
The environmental nonprofit has filed an injunction to suspend the investigation until a hearing into its legal challenge can take place. Ecojustice filed for judicial review in November 2019 asking the Court of Queen’s Bench to terminate the investigation, alleging it was created for “partisan political purposes” outside the authority of the Public Inquiries Act and that it had been tainted with bias from the start. .
Premier Jason Kenney launched the investigation in July 2019 to determine whether “foreign-funded special interest” groups disseminated incomplete, misleading or false information about Alberta’s oil and gas industry, which would have cost the province jobs and potential investments.
At the time, the premier spoke of ill-defined allegations of Russian involvement in Alberta’s oil landlock, the suggestion that OPEC supports shutting down the province’s energy resources, and the funding of groups environmental contributions by the Rockefeller and Tides foundations, among others.
Kenney alleged that these environmental groups have only hurt Canadian industry and failed to limit the consumption or production of fossil fuels around the world. He suggested that environmental groups haven’t made the same effort to fight rising oil and gas production in the United States, and wondered why.
Kenney’s United Conservative Party government has been accused of attacking the organisations’ right to free speech and of being unconstitutional.
“What the Prime Minister was trying to do was silence public debate”
Over the past year, the survey’s completion date has been pushed back four months and another million has been added to its original $2.5 million price tag.
Although this is a public inquiry, Allan did not release his interim report – only the government – and he did not reveal who he interviewed as part of his investigation.
Several environmental groups accused of denigrating the oil and gas industry say they were not interviewed.
Page said no part of the investigation was conducted in a manner that complied with the law, describing it as both a politically motivated “witch hunt” and a “gong show”.
“What is the commission trying to hide? Why don’t they release the documents they plan to rely on to release a report?” Page asked.
“What the prime minister was trying to do is silence public debate.”
The Prime Minister respects his mandate
On Tuesday, Kenney said he had not read the update or spoken to Allan since the process began because the commissioner is independent.
However, he said he was sticking to the original mandate.
“We need to get to the bottom of a foreign-funded campaign to landlock Alberta energy: that’s why we engaged with the commission in the last election,” Kenney said.
“I know that the commission had to devote some of its time to what I would call a nuisance lawsuit, coming from some of these foreign-funded special interests who want to avoid any form of transparency or accountability for the lies they’ve been telling about Alberta’s responsible energy sector,” he said.
“Massive embezzlement of public funds”, according to an expert
Martin Olszynski, a lawyer and associate professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in environmental and administrative law, said that once an investigation is ordered, one of the first things that happens once the terms of reference are set is that the rules of procedure are described.
But he said that in this case those details were not provided until Monday, a year after the investigation began.
“The commissioner, in carrying out his job, if he’s not providing people with procedural fairness…then his findings can be challenged in court,” Olszynski said.
“So I think he’s realizing now that he can’t really reconcile those two worlds.
“He has to really tighten the terms of reference … to come to an entirely non-controversial conclusion.”
Olszynski said this means the investigation will uncover what is already widely known – that there is foreign funding, which is common in the charitable sector, and that there is opposition to oil development, for reasons such as as groundwater contamination or the disappearance of local caribou populations.
“It’s a huge waste of money,” Olszynski said. “In my view, this is…an embezzlement of public funds.”
Allan was due to submit a final report to the Minister of Energy by October 30, but indicated he would seek another extension of time and possibly more funds.