The final report from Alberta’s inquiry into the funding of “anti-Alberta” environmental groups may not be released until late August after it received a four-month extension – the latest delay in a process that has missed two earlier deadlines and is $1-million over its initial budget.
The delay, announced late Friday evening just two days before the final report was due, has added to criticism of the inquiry, which was a key campaign promise from Premier Jason Kenney.
The Premier claims the province’s oil industry has been the target of a foreign-funded campaign to malign the industry and oppose expansion. Many of the environmental groups targeted by Mr. Kenney’s government say U.S. funding accounts for just a small portion of their overall budgets.
Commissioner Steve Allan, a forensic accountant, was appointed in July, 2019, with a $2.5-million budget and a year to complete his work. He missed that initial deadline and another in October, and his budget was increased to $3.5-million.
The provincial government extended the deadline a third time on Friday, changing the report’s due date to May 31 instead of Jan. 31. Once the report has been submitted, the government must release it within 90 days.
Mr. Allan, who is being paid $290,000, issued a statement on Friday night blaming the COVID-19 pandemic for the delays and said he needed more time to seek comment from anyone he intends to make an “adverse finding” against. The inquiry’s budget is unchanged, the statement said.
“The inquiry has required and undertaken a thorough and detailed review of voluminous material covering a time frame of about 20 years, which has been made all the more complex by the COVID-19 pandemic and related public-health advisories,” the statement said.
His spokesman, Alan Boras, said delays related to COVID-19 included finalizing the terms of reference with the government, which was focused on the pandemic. Mr. Boras also defended the limited public access to the inquiry’s work while saying Mr. Allan has the discretion to determine what is released.
“It’s important that the inquiry take the time necessary to complete the process in an open and fair way,” Mr. Boras said Sunday. “Yes, it’s different from a typical public inquiry, but it’s primarily a forensic accounting exercise and then offering people an opportunity to respond.”
Very little of Mr. Allan’s work has been made public and an interim report submitted a year ago was not released. He opted not to hold public hearings.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage was unavailable for an interview. Her press secretary, Peter Brodsky, issued a statement that said the extension was granted to ensure the inquiry’s work would be comprehensive. He did not respond to additional questions about whether the repeated delays and level of public disclosure from Mr. Allan have been appropriate.
The government said it did not distribute the order in council detailing the extension until Friday night because of a technical error.
Kathleen Ganley, the Opposition NDP’s energy critic, said the latest delay is yet another reason to fire Mr. Allan and shut the inquiry down.
“A lot of systems have been delayed by COVID-19, but a lot of them, the courts, for instance, have mostly managed to move online,” she said.
“It’s not really even clear what it is that they’re doing. … It’s very difficult for me to see how the pandemic could explain this many extensions.”
Ms. Ganley, whose party has been opposed to the inquiry from the beginning, said the inquiry is not doing anything to help workers in the oil industry who are struggling or bring more investment to Alberta.
Mr. Allan has also been criticized for commissioning reports that have been labelled “climate-change denialism.” One report paid for by the inquiry suggested climate change is primarily a natural phenomenon and argued that it is being used by a well-funded global movement as a “pretext” to overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism.
Mr. Allan responded to the criticism by stressing that the reports do not represent his own findings and that he does not intend to make any conclusions about the science of climate change. The reports were distributed to participants to solicit feedback.
Martin Olszynski, an administrative law professor at the University of Calgary, provided a lengthy written submission to the inquiry rebutting many of the points made in those reports. He also submitted an application to have a piece published by the National Observer, which used U.S. charity data to refute the claims that significant amounts of U.S. money are funding the Canadian environmental charities, added to the reading list.
Mr. Allan rejected the application but said he is already familiar with the National Observer’s reporting.
Mr. Olszynski said in an interview that the material that Mr. Allan sought comment on, including the three reports he commissioned, reflects a process that has been one-sided since its inception
“It isn’t a good-faith exercise of the Public Inquiries Act,” he said. “Fundamentally, it’s intended to target, stigmatize and delegitimize opposition to oil and gas development in Alberta.”
He said Mr. Allan’s work is unlike other inquiries, which typically include hearings and release documents related to their work.
The inquiry is also the subject of a legal challenge filed by the Vancouver-based environmental group Ecojustice, which argues the inquiry is unconstitutional. The group lost a bid to have the inquiry shut down while the legal case proceeds, but it is continuing with its challenge.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.