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Report on Business Alberta’s offensive against oil sands opponents is politics masquerading as public policy

Alberta looks to be moving toward a green version of the Red Scare.

Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party has launched its offensive against what it says is a scourge of environmental opposition to the oil industry.

The taxpayer-funded probe into foreign funding of environmental groups delivers everything the staunchest oil-patch backers would want, with the starting point that opposition, be it partly funded by foreigners or not, could make one anti-Albertan.

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Most worrisome, judging from details published by the government this week, is the apparent open-endedness of the process, its lack of transparency and the threat that reputations could get impugned by the government, with little apparent recourse for those targeted.

This looks to be politics masquerading as public policy and, with its anti-democratic tone, threatens to repel as many Albertans as it delights.

Concerns about the process have already gone global. On Tuesday, Amnesty International wrote to Mr. Kenney to warn of human-rights concerns tied to his “aggressive approach to defending the oil and gas industry,” including the public inquiry.

This summer, Mr. Kenney appointed forensic accountant and former Calgary Economic Development chairman Steve Allan as commissioner to lead the Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns he had promised during the recent provincial election. It is one part of his multipronged attack on behalf of the industry, which also includes an information war room to fire barrages at anti-oil-patch messaging.

Mr. Kenney pledged to fight back against the “defamation” of Alberta’s oil industry allegedly wrought by environmental groups that have received money from U.S. charitable foundations and trusts. This week, the government published the terms of reference and set up a website to invite submissions from the public – critics have already dubbed it a snitch line.

Mr. Allan will “inquire into anti-Alberta energy campaigns that are supported, in whole or in part, by foreign organizations." The idea is to look into the funding, report back to the government and possibly conduct a public hearing. He’ll gather records and conduct interviews inside and outside Alberta – wherever the trail of foreign funding leads him. Within the province, he can compel testimony.

The message, championed by British Columbia-based blogger Vivian Krause, has become gospel for Alberta conservatives – that activism funded by puppet-masters outside Canada was villainous in blocking the oil patch from flourishing. Ms. Krause, studying tax documents, has detailed millions of dollars of such contributions to Canadian environmental groups over a 10-year period. She has suggested contributions equate to control.

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Some of green groups, including the Pembina Institute and David Suzuki Foundation, have released their own numbers showing such contributions were relatively small annually in comparison to the rest of their funding. The pro-oil crowd dismisses them out of hand.

Mr. Kenney has asked the commissioner to use his conclusions to recommend what should be considered for charities to get provincial grants and even assist Ottawa in determining if groups can keep their charitable status.

The anger of energy companies and their lobby groups is understandable. The oil-patch downturn began five years ago as oil prices tumbled and it has dragged on as the industry’s efforts to build pipelines to access new markets have been frustrated time and again – even as drilling has boomed in the United States.

It’s especially galling to many executives and employees as numerous companies have spent meaningful sums to improve their environmental performance: from undertaking research and development to cut carbon emissions to teaming up to clean up spent well sites in specific regions. Yet, jobs are still being cut and livelihoods are suffering as the industry remains out of favour.

But it wasn’t environmental campaigns that were key in reversing approvals for two pipelines to the West Coast. Both Northern Gateway and the Trans Mountain Expansion were halted by the courts after two different federal governments failed in their duty to consult effectively with Indigenous communities.

It’s absurd to think that environmentalists wouldn’t raise issues of fossil fuels’ impact on climate change if not for foreign funding. It’s what they do, and even if the government disagrees with them, it’s legal. Some of their assertions are well founded. Others, regarding Alberta’s relative impact on a global scale, may be alarmist or even wrong. The tough part is determining what environmental opposition, and even more specifically, the foreign-funded portion, has accomplished, given myriad factors acting against infrastructure getting built.

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Such arguments aside, the Kenney government, in its quest to get its foes to be transparent, made sure the probe is not subject to the same. Mr. Allan won’t be conducting media interviews during the process. Also, the investigation has been protected against any nosiness from the media or others who would seek to glean details through access-to-information legislation.

A publicly funded investigation, driven by a government that has said what it believes the conclusions are, conducted without public scrutiny – that’s not just anti-democratic. It’s anti-Albertan.

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