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opinion

The Alberta government’s inquiry into foreign charities beating up on the oil industry has been an act of political theatre in response to a shaky premise from the get-go.

Now, in the midst of an economic crisis, Premier Jason Kenney’s decision to extend the probe’s deadline and top up its budget by another $1-million calls into question his government’s priorities. The province’s energy companies are indeed in a fight for survival, but their most fearsome adversaries are not environmental activists but a virus and oil markets.

There’s another odd wrinkle to this: At first, the inquiry’s mission statement was crafted with confidence that the outcome was all but assured; a year in, the wording has been softened.

In the initial terms of reference, the investigation would “inquire into anti-Alberta energy campaigns that are supported, in whole or in part, by foreign organizations.”

But last week, when Energy Minister Sonya Savage said the inquiry was getting a four-month extension and a 40-per-cent increase to the original $2.5-million budget, it was changed to read: “the role of foreign funding, if any, in anti-Alberta energy campaigns.”

This could be a signal that the evidence does not support the assertion. It could also be in response to a lawsuit filed by the environmental law firm Ecojustice. It argues the inquiry is unconstitutional, partly because the initial wording prejudged the outcome. Either way, the government and those representing the inquiry won’t say.

The commission to investigate the assassination of the oil patch was a 2019 campaign promise. Mr. Kenney made it official one year ago by appointing Steve Allan, a politically connected forensic accountant and former Calgary Economic Development chairman, to be its Earl Warren.

It was part of a series of “fight back” measures to show conservative voters that the United Conservative Party would take on all comers to defend the province’s marquee industry. Another was the war room, the now-defunded propaganda arm known as the Canadian Energy Centre.

Mr. Allan is tasked with smoking out any dark money that flowed to Canadian green groups from U.S. charitable foundations. The government and its allies blame this for illicit plots to rob the oil patch of billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs.

As the theory goes, Canadian environmental groups took the contributions and then became puppets as they went about protesting Alberta’s oil sands developments and pipelines. This, of course, ignores any notion that homegrown environmentalists would oppose the industry regardless of where their financial backing came from and that the U.S. foundations also fund opposition elsewhere, including the United States.

Inherent in the messaging is that demonstrating against fossil fuel development could make one anti-Albertan – not just a foe of the oil patch but an enemy of the state. Any whiff of foreign involvement makes it seem all the more dastardly.

Mr. Allan has spent the past year looking into the funding and, it is assumed, will recommend whether to hold a public hearing. His sleuthing was to have involved gathering records and conducting interviews inside and outside Alberta. Within the province, he was given the power to compel testimony.

The research phase was finished in January, when he submitted an interim report to the government. None of the findings has been made public, which sort of runs counter to the idea of a public inquiry.

As recently as last week, some of the organizations mentioned by the government as central players in the alleged espionage said they had not been interviewed by Mr. Allan. This includes MakeWay, the charity formally known as Tides Canada, often held up by Mr. Kenney as a main culprit.

Had they been asked, the suspects would have told him what they’ve said repeatedly to anyone who has inquired: U.S. funding accounts for just a small portion of their overall budgets.

Now, Alberta finds itself in a new crisis following on the heels of the one that lingered after oil prices crashed in late 2014. Jobs have disappeared by the thousands as the industry has ground to a near halt.

It’s long past time to close the curtain. The government should spend no more time fighting a quixotic battle against perceived enemies from without when it has very real problems to solve from within.

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