Alberta government dissolves controversial energy 'war room'

Former Alberta premier Jason Kenney, centre, addresses attendees at a press conference to announce the launch of the Canadian Energy Centre at SAIT in Calgary on Dec. 11, 2019, flanked by former energy minister Sonya Savage, left, and Tom Olsen, managing director of the Canadian Energy Centre. Kenney  opened the province's energy war room to fight what he called a campaign of lies about the province's energy industry.  (Greg Fulmes/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Alberta government is shutting down the Canadian Energy Centre — the controversial energy "war room"  — and shuffling its duties into a government department.

The CEC was founded by the Jason Kenney government in 2019 to fight what it called misinformation about the province's energy industry.

The office of Brian Jean, minister of energy and minerals, confirmed to CBC that the centre will be integrated into the intergovernmental relations department.

The statement to CBC says that the centre "is an important advocate for Canada and Alberta's long-term position as a safe, clean and responsible energy supplier and will continue to increase the public's understanding of the role oil and gas plays globally in a secure energy future."

"After careful consideration, we will be integrating the mandate of the CEC into Intergovernmental Relations (IGR). Resources such as CEC assets, intellectual property, and researchers will now be supporting IGR in order to seamlessly continue this important work."

Tom Olsen was the CEC's CEO from its founding. He has not yet responded to a request for comment from CBC News.

A history of controversy 

The centre — also known as the "war room" — was established to promote the energy industry and counter what it deemed to be misinformation. Among its actions that grabbed headlines were accusing the New York Times of bias and attacking the makers of a children's film featuring Bigfoot for what it felt was an anti-oil message.

The centre has published a series of articles on its website. Sources contacted for those stories have told media organizations, including The Canadian Press, that staff identified themselves on the phone as reporters.

The Canadian Association of Journalists' then-president Karyn Pugliese said in 2019 that members of the centre should stop calling themselves reporters and described the CEC as a government-hired PR firm.

The centre also had to change its initial logo in 2019 after it was revealed the logo already represents an American tech company.

While the centre was taxpayer-funded, it was designated as a private corporation and exempt from freedom of information legislation, including information regarding expenditures and awards contracts.

'Waste of taxpayer money' 

The centre operated on an initial $30-million-per-year budget, which was slashed by 90 per cent in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A portion of the centre's funding came from industry fees paid to the government's Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) program. The remaining funding came from money set aside for government advertising campaigns.

The centre's most recent annual report showed it signed a $22-million contract for a media campaign last fiscal year. That was about three times its entire government grant from the previous year.

Andrew Leach, a professor of economics and law at the University of Alberta, said the money spent on the centre could've been used elsewhere.

"This is all done under governments that came in promising fiscal oversight and value for money, etc. And then … we don't have a lot of transparency, and that was by design," Leach said in an interview on Tuesday.

"I think the dollars could have been spent, for example, figuring out how to clean up Alberta's regulatory system so that we are tracking and prepared for holding companies to account for the reclamation liabilities that were dealing with the oil sands … the environmental risks of tailings ponds, put the money there, not into a series of ads and rolling billboards."

NDP MLA Nagwan Al-Guneid said in an interview that shutting down the war room was long overdue.

"We have asked the government, the UCP government, for years, to shut down this agency," said Al-Guneid who is the opposition critic for energy and climate.

"This decision right now just proves that this has been a colossal waste of taxpayer money. So we haven't seen how this agency or this war room, how did it really help the Alberta energy sector in any measurable way?"

Al-Guneid said the Alberta NDP would ask the auditor general of Alberta to investigate the use of funds by the centre.

Leach said now that the centre is being integrated into a provincial ministry, the Smith government can be forthcoming by providing an accounting of the centre's activities.

"We're going to publish the reports of the activities of this, what is now an arm of the government, and explain to Albertans where that money's gone, or we're going to ask the auditor general to do it, to do what they would have been able to do had this been set up in this way in the first place."