UCP says Alberta’s energy war room’s ‘internal operations’ not subject to freedom of information laws

The Kenney government’s so-called “energy war room,” which is aimed at countering criticism of Alberta’s energy industry, is coming under fire again after the province revealed its “internal operations” won’t be subject to freedom of information laws.

“Albertans should be very worried about this, because what this is essentially doing is saying they (citizens) have no right to know what their government is doing in one of its most secretive areas, in one of its most controversial areas,” said Sean Holman, an associate professor of journalism at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

Holman added that the secrecy will make it difficult to hold the government to account for its actions in the war room sphere.

“[Freedom of information laws] are the only laws we have that allow people to get access to information that the government would not otherwise voluntarily disclose,” he said.

“So this is very disturbing and outside democratic norms.”

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On Wednesday, Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced the war room was now a legal entity and incorporated and would be called the Canadian Energy Centre. She said the program was expected to be up and running before Christmas.

“There will be social media. There will be traditional media,” Savage said.

“There will be speaking engagements, anything that you can get that can be utilized to get the story out because over the last decade that story has been framed, and the narrative has been set, by opposition to our oil and gas sector.”

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READ MORE: Alberta government says its energy war room will launch soon under ‘Canadian Energy Centre’ name

The war room will be managed by former UCP candidate Tom Olsen and have a budget of $30 million. The government has confirmed Olsen’s annual salary will be $194,252.

On Thursday afternoon, a spokesperson for Premier Kenney’s office issued a statement explaining why some details of how the war room operates will be kept secret.

“When discussing details of the newly incorporated Canadian Energy Centre, the minister of energy was not sufficiently clear regarding FOIP legislation’s applicability to the CEC,” Christine Myatt said. “Information that’s under control of the Government of Alberta, including information provided to government by the CEC and vice versa, is subject to FOIP.

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“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. For example, we would not let those foreign-funded special interests seeking to attack our province see our detailed defence plans.

“It should be noted that CEC is still subject to PIPA, the Whistleblowers’ Act and to audit by the Auditor General.”

Myatt explained that the CEC is a provincial corporation under the Financial Administration Act and that the ministers of justice, energy, and environment are the board members, while the Crown, “on behalf of the people of Alberta, is the shareholder.”

Holman said beyond the fact the war room will not be subject to freedom of information requests, he has concerns about the overall threat the program poses to democracy in Alberta.

“We’re talking about an operation that is essentially surveilling civil society groups and looking to intimidate them for doing things that are part of democratic society,” he said. “People should have a right to dissent, whether it’s involving the government or big business, and what this energy war room is designed to do is to suppress that kind of dissent.

“I think it’s really disturbing. A democratic government is not a secretive government and what this war room is, is extremely secretive.”

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Plans to create an energy war room were first announced by Jason Kenney as he was running to become premier. He said he believed anti-oil activists and others were spreading misinformation about Alberta’s energy sector.

He also suggested he believes environmental groups receive considerable funding from foreign actors, and that there may be a conspiracy by those foreign actors to keep Alberta’s oil and gas landlocked by preventing pipelines from getting built.

The Alberta government has commissioned a $2.5-million public inquiry into how anti-oil groups are funded.

Foreign actors and corporations have a significant stake in Alberta’s energy industry even though foreign interest is declining, research shows.

READ MORE: Foreign share of production in Alberta’s oilsands falls from 33% to 16%, analysis shows

According to a Canadian Press analysis of Alberta Energy Regulator production numbers, in 2018, about 573,000 barrels per day of oilsands output was attributable to non-Canadian companies.

According to The Canadian Press, the 12 foreign companies that currently have commercial oilsands production in Alberta are composed of three from the U.S. (ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, Chevron), three from China (CNOOC or China National Offshore Oil Corp., PetroChina, Sinopec), and one each from Britain (BP), the Netherlands (Shell), France (Total S.A.), Hong Kong (Sunshine Oilsands), Japan (JACOS) and South Korea (Harvest Operations).

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–With files from Global News’ Tom Vernon and The Canadian Press

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