Alberta’s so-called energy war room will lead an advertising effort to promote the province’s environmental, social and governance standards, but some in the energy sector worry the office’s combative history won’t bode well for success in the campaign about ESG leadership.
Officially called the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC), the agency has seen its fair share of controversies since it launched in December, 2019, to counter what Premier Jason Kenney calls misinformation about the energy sector. Last week, it was the focus of widespread criticism and jokes about its campaign against a children’s cartoon about a mythical bigfoot family on Netflix.
As the CEC prepares to lead an ESG marketing campaign, long-time Calgary energy economist Peter Tertzakian says “there is a lot of trust-building that has to happen.”
While he doesn’t believe information that comes from the war room is wrong, he says “the problem is they have never established trust with the public, so the public doesn’t believe it. Nor do environmental groups. Nor do people outside of Alberta.”
Mr. Kenney officially launched the war room on a snowy day in Calgary, saying it would “quickly and effectively rebut every lie told by the green left about our world-class energy industry.”
Since then, the CEC has produced about 35 research reports and more than 200 other pieces of content, including analysis and stories about the energy sector, albeit with a smaller annual budget than the original $30-million.
According to its annual report, the war room received $5-million from October 9, 2019, to March 31, 2020, and spent just shy of $2-million. Chief executive officer Tom Olsen says the 2020-21 budget was cut to $4.7-million as the province dealt with the fiscal fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. And although February’s budget did not include CEC funding as a specific line item, government officials told The Globe and Mail the war room will get $12-million in 2021-22.
Mr. Olsen, a former candidate for the governing United Conservative Party, described the CEC during an interview this week as “a marketing advocacy organization with a robust research arm.”
It has spearheaded numerous advocacy campaigns, including a letter-writing push in Saskatchewan urging Regina residents to oppose a motion by a councillor that would have banned oil and gas logos on city-owned properties, and one to then-president-elect Joe Biden voicing support for the Keystone XL pipeline.
The CEC operates with a high degree of independence; although it has a board, it decides what research to do, what data to analyze and how it should defend the energy sector. It’s also a private corporation rather than a Crown agency, a deliberate tactic by the government to shield it from access-to-information laws.
“You don’t do anything by accident. You don’t make decisions on instinct,” Mr. Olsen said. “There’s got to be metrics and it’s got to make sense, whether we’re doing research or a marketing campaign.”
Mr. Olsen says the CEC has been promoting ESG efforts in the energy sector since its inception. But Simon Dyer, deputy executive director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, doesn’t think that work is particularly new or innovative.
“Let’s talk about the issues. Let’s talk about how oil and gas – which is Canada’s largest source of emissions, at 26 per cent – is going to be part of the solution to net zero,” he said.
“It just doesn’t feel like the Canadian Energy Centre is actually tapped into the discussion that’s taking place in 2021. It seems to be relitigating discussions from 10 years ago.”
The creation of a war room was among a handful of promises in the UCP’s election platform that focused on fighting for the oil sector, but its origin story begins well before that.
Almost a year after floating the idea at the founding UCP convention in May, 2018, Mr. Kenney stood on the side of a road that runs past Trans Mountain Pipeline’s Edmonton terminal in March, 2019, to flesh out the plan. With trucks rumbling by, he said public servants would staff the agency, which would operate out of the Public Affairs Bureau.
He also promised he would demand oil companies pitch in and help defend their industry against the green enemy, but the Premier’s Office did not respond to a Globe query about whether Mr. Kenney reached out to producers. The major oil companies contacted by The Globe were also tight-lipped, but pointed to the fact many of their operational and environmental milestones have been used by the CEC.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage came to politics from the pipeline sector, and says the war room counters misinformation in a way that industry cannot.
“Companies wouldn’t do it because it’s messy. Industry associations wouldn’t do it because it’s messy. But we know what happens when you don’t,” she said. “False narratives start taking root.”
Mr. Tertzakian, however, would just like more timely, raw data that analysts and others can interpret as they wish.
“Do we need the information? Yes, we do,” he said. “But do we need a communications platform to take on negative press and be a communications agency? The answer to that is a little more nebulous in my mind.”
Mr. Kenney said in 2019 the war room would undergo a performance review after four years, though Ms. Savage said it’s too early to know what that might look like.
And while she wouldn’t rank its performance thus far, she dismissed criticism that the war room is simply preaching to the pro-oil choir.
“You’re not preaching to the choir. You’re getting information out there to say, ‘Hey, this is not right. This isn’t the whole story. This isn’t the fact,’” she said.
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