What we know and don’t know about the government’s energy war room

There’s a problematic veil of secrecy over what will happen inside the Alberta government’s war room to combat “misinformation” about the oil and gas industry, say democracy watchers.

Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced the Canadian Energy Centre, with Olsen at the helm, will use facts to counteract misinformation about the oilpatch. AZIN GHAFFARI/CP / SunMedia

There’s a problematic veil of secrecy over what will happen inside the Alberta government’s war room to combat “misinformation” about the oil and gas industry, say democracy watchers.

Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt said he was puzzled when he heard the internal workings of the citizen-funded Canadian Energy Centre would not be subject to freedom of information and privacy (FOIP) law in the province.

“I thought the purpose was transparency, and to correct misperceptions and to be open,” Bratt said on Friday. “That seems to be contradictory to incorporating this.”

The government fulfilled an election promise to create a war room when it incorporated the energy centre on Wednesday. The Crown is the sole owner, and it will be governed by a board of three people — the ministers of energy, finance, and environment and parks.

It is the only Alberta corporation with this governance structure, due to its unprecedented role, according to Alberta Energy.

Faced with questions about the public’s view of its internal machinations, Premier Jason Kenney’s spokeswoman Christine Myatt said in a Thursday statement only information exchanged between the government and the centre would be subject to freedom of information requests by the public.

“The CEC’s internal operations are not subject to FOIP, as this would provide a tactical and/or strategic advantage to the very foreign-funded special interests the CEC is looking to counter,” Myatt said. “For example, we would not let those foreign-funded special interests seeking to attack our province see our detailed defence plans.”

The centre, with a $30-million annual budget, will be subject to oversight by the auditor general and the whistleblower protection act. Unlike public agencies, boards and commissions, the centre will not be required to publish the salaries of top-earning employees on a public list.

Tom Olsen, a former journalist, unsuccessful UCP candidate and press secretary to former premier Ed Stelmach, will run the Calgary-based centre for a $194,252 salary. The operation should be open by Christmas, Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Wednesday.

Advertising campaigns, public presentations and social media posts could all be part of the centre’s work, along with data gathering and a “rapid response” team that will attempt to predict and get ahead of misinformation, she said.

‘Outright false information’

Although the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers also promotes the industry as ethical and environmentally responsible, president and CEO Tim McMillan said in a written statement Friday the organization is happy for government help.

“We are looking forward to seeing another strong and credible voice that will stand up for the oil and natural gas industry and help push back on the relentless campaigns that target the livelihoods of the over half million women and men that are directly or indirectly employed by our industry,” his statement said.

Sean Holman, a Mount Royal University journalism professor who studies organizational accountability, said it’s troubling and “Orwellian” that a publicly funded body tasked with identifying people who disagree with the government can operate out of the public eye.

In a well-functioning democracy, groups are encouraged to challenge big business and governments, he said.

Savage has said the centre is tasked with framing the story of Canadian oil, not targeting individuals.

The Canadian Energy Centre’s name also implies the “energy” industry is limited to petroleum products, Holman said.

“It would be more advantageous for the provincial government to instead look to sponsor some of those alternative forms of energy as opposed to fighting what I think is ultimately a losing, defensive action for an industry that is inevitably going to have to change,” Holman said.

Bratt is skeptical of the war room’s premise. Environmentalists without funding from foreign organization’s aren’t A-OK with the oilsands, he said.

“The nature of populism is that you have to find enemies,” he said.

The Canadian Energy Centre makes it sound like a think tank, Bratt said. No one’s going to call it by its formal name, he said.