When a freelance writer working for the Alberta government’s “energy war room” contacted Lianne Lefsrud for an interview, she was more than a little nervous. The University of Alberta engineering professor’s work has focused on the polarization in the energy debate and how to bring opposing sides together.
She was already familiar with the Canadian Energy Centre, a project the United Conservative Party government previously called its “war room,” and its mission to promote the oil and gas industry and attack its critics.
“A 'war room’ is exactly the wrong kind of language,” Dr. Lefsrud said in an interview. “What it does is that it continues to divide rather than bring people together.”
Still, she took the call last month during a week in which she also talked to several news outlets as part of her effort to engage with a range of voices in the energy debate. Dr. Lefsrud was fine with the resulting article, although she was disappointed it largely focused on oil and gas, even though she had lots to say about nuclear, geothermal, renewable and other forms of energy.
The article featuring Dr. Lefsrud earlier this month was one of the first published on the website of the energy centre, which was born out of a United Conservative Party election promise to fight back against perceived enemies of the province’s resource sector.
The centre has a $30-million annual budget, funded in part through an industrial carbon tax. The government project has five full-time and three part-time staff, in addition to freelancers, and will have teams working on articles, research and “rapid response” to perceived errors or misinformation. In addition to the website, the centre plans to use social-media and traditional advertising.
So far, the centre’s work has been mainly feature articles, opinion columns and other content posted to its website, similar to other government-funded public-relations campaigns that attempt to mimic traditional news media.
Its writers have identified themselves as reporters when they contact sources, and in some cases, not mentioning the centre’s connection to the government, or its mission. Two people interviewed by Canadian Energy Centre writers say they did not realize these people worked for a government-funded public-relations campaign until they were contacted by The Globe and Mail.
Brad Clark, who runs the journalism program at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said writers for the centre are passing themselves off as journalists without any obligation to follow the same standards or subject themselves to oversight such as public editors or press councils.
“It’s a little disturbing the way that it seems to be trying to take on some of the legitimacy that’s associated with news production and journalism,” he said. “The mission of this organization is to provide a particular point of view, and it does leave out lots of legitimate perspectives on the energy industry.”
Mr. Clark said it’s also not clear what the centre offers that industry groups aren’t already doing.
The centre has prompted comparisons with Ontario News Now, an online video service run by Premier Doug Ford’s caucus. Stephen Harper’s Conservative federal government had a weekly video series, called 24 Seven, and Ontario’s Liberal Party produced YouTube videos a decade ago called Liberal TV.
The centre’s chief executive officer, Tom Olsen, a former journalist who ran unsuccessfully for the UCP in this year’s provincial election, rejected criticism that his job is to parrot the UCP government’s message or that his agency’s work amounts to propaganda. He said the goal is to tone down the debate and offer a fact-based defence of the industry.
“We’re supposed to reframe the energy story in Canada,” Mr. Olsen said. “Our starting point is that Canadian energy, and specifically Alberta oil and gas, can make the world a better place.”
Mr. Olsen said his staff and freelancers are expected to follow “standard journalism practice” and do not hide who they work for. He said the centre is independent, although its board of directors is made up of three cabinet ministers.
The campaign has also prompted questions about oversight. It is exempt from access-to-information requests, which the government says gives it a “tactical” advantage over opponents of the industry. Mr. Olsen added the centre is subject to audit by the auditor-general, and staffers can report wrongdoing under the province’s whistle-blower protection law.
"Everything we do is going to be on our website or otherwise available,” he said. “For public oversight, we hope as many members of the public actually see the work we do.”
The first week was overshadowed by questions about the energy centre’s logo after users on social media said it was nearly identical to the branding of a U.S.-based software company. The centre said it would change the logo and blamed a marketing company it hired.
The Opposition New Democrats call the energy centre a waste of money that will do little to help the province’s economy, although supporters pointed out that the NDP mounted its own multimillion-dollar ad campaign for the industry while in office.
“It’s just slush fund,” said the party’s energy critic, Irfan Sabir. “There’s no transparency.”
Linda Delli Santi, president of the BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association, said she assumed the Canadian Energy Centre was an industry publication when a Toronto-based writer contacted her several weeks ago for an article about how greenhouses use natural gas.
Ms. Delli Santi said she was eager to share her group’s message, and now that she knows where the article came from, she has no problem with it.
“The greenhouse sector is quite happy to have the story told,” she said. “It’s a wonderful fuel, natural gas. So we support the work that the energy centre is doing."
Peter Budisa, a caterer from Mississauga, Ont., also said he didn’t know what the energy centre was when he was interviewed for an article about chefs who cook with natural gas. He doesn’t object, because he sees the piece as free advertising.
The centre’s marquee article when it launched was about a father in the Calgary area who objected to materials from an environmental group that were distributed in his son’s class.
In an e-mail to the group, called Three Percent Project, staffer Shawn Logan identified himself as a reporter with the Canadian Energy Centre without mentioning its ties to the government. The group’s founder, a 25-year-old activist named Steve Lee, did not respond.
Mr. Lee said in an e-mail to The Globe that he does not want to contribute to the polarization of the climate debate. “My presentation in Alberta was received very positively except for a small subset of the public, as well as the Alberta war room, whose response I find baffling,” he wrote.
The father in the article, David Durda, said he raised his complaint with a school trustee, his United Conservative MLA and others, so he wasn’t surprised when Mr. Logan contacted him.
“How they portrayed my story is very factual, and I was actually quite happy with it,” he said in an interview.
“My view on this is that there’s a lot of disinformation out there and we need somebody like the Canadian Energy Centre to stand up and actually provide the truth.”