EDMONTON — The Alberta government has opened a new offensive in the fight against oilsands critics, announcing on Thursday a public inquiry into the finances of environmental organizations, specifically on funding from foreign donors, a bugbear of Jason Kenney’s government.
Such a move raises the stakes for environmental groups that could now be compelled to testify before the inquiry and face as yet unknown consequences — perhaps lawsuits, Kenney speculated — once the commissioner reports back to the legislature.
“For more than a decade, Alberta has been the target of a well-funded political propaganda campaign to defame our energy industry and to landlock our resources,” Kenney told reporters in Calgary in announcing the inquiry.
The United Conservatives have long promised a “fight back strategy” aimed at shellacking the critics of Alberta’s energy industry and supporting those who want to bolster it. So far, the plan has consisted of creating a war room to counter “misinformation” and using a litigation fund to support the legal battles of pro-energy industry Indigenous groups.
But on Thursday, the government unveiled an ambitious program of investigating the non-profit and charitable groups that do environmental advocacy in Canada, with Kenney raising the spectre of “shadowy funding” that includes U.S. hedge fund billionaire and environmentalist Tom Steyer; LeadNow, a Canadian advocacy group, that Kenney said “took an active role” in the 2015 federal election in Canada; and the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based organization advocating responsible resource development.
“This brief summary of what we know amounts to a premeditated, internationally planned and financed operation to put Alberta energy out of business,” Kenney said.
The $2.5-million inquiry will operate in two phases, one of fact-finding and the other that would consider public hearings, and will report back by July 2, 2020. It will make recommendations on how Alberta ought to respond to these campaigns and on eligibility criteria for grant funding and charitable status.
Steve Allan, a forensic and restructuring accountant, will be commissioner of the inquiry.
“I know Mr. Allan will fulfil his role admirably, and will serve as an impartial and effective commissioner,” said Doug Schweitzer, the minister of justice and solicitor general.
Kenney and his government have long said money from the United States is behind many of the campaigns to shut down the oilsands, crippling pipeline construction and throwing the economy of the wealthiest per capita province into disarray. The contention relies heavily upon work done by Vivian Krause, a nutritionist by education and a former manager at a salmon farming corporation, who has traced funding from U.S. foundations to Canadian environmentalists over the past decade. (Krause has been a contributor to the Financial Post.)
Simon Dyer, the executive director of the Pembina Institute, said they’ll consider the inquiry a chance to showcase their work and push back against misinformation about the institute.
“The majority of our funding has got nothing to do with oil and gas,” Dyer said.
While the Alberta government singled out the U.S.-based Tar Sands Campaign, Kenney said the inquiry would not be limited to that organization but could also look at Russia, which the U.S. House of Representatives found used social media to influence American views about energy projects.
Tzeporah Berman, the international program director at Stand.earth, and a frequent target of Kenney’s ire, said on Twitter that the public inquiry amounts to a Nixonian “witch hunt.”
“What is disturbing about this Alberta Inquiry is government using power of the state to harass citizens who disagree with their agenda to expand the oil and gas industry despite the growing threat of climate change,” Berman wrote. “This Inquiry is about civil liberties.”
Asked by a reporter, Kenney denied the inquiry had anything to do with free speech.
“I completely respect the freedom of speech of interest groups, regardless of their perspective,” said Kenney. “Were not challenging the legitimate mandate of environmental groups to express their concerns, but when that turns into almost an obsessive and deliberate political goal … then we have legitimate questions to ask.”
Many of the connections between American foundations and environmental groups in Canada are already reasonably well known; reporters asked Kenney if this was just a PR exercise.
“I think it would be very beneficial in terms of transparency and public debate on this issue to have one authoritative compilation of all information on the campaign that’s seeking to landlock our energy,” said Kenney.
Under the Inquiries Act, the inquiry will have the power to compel witnesses and records production, but, that power is limited to within Alberta’s borders, meaning American donors and organizations would not be forced to comply. “I think this is the most that we can do with the authority that we have,” said Kenney.
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