The Alberta government’s Canadian Energy Centre — its long-promised, much-hyped “rapid-response war room," a provincial corporation with a $30-million annual budget — finally launched on Dec. 11. It embarked on its noble mission with all appropriate pomp and ceremony, by which I mean there was a website and a sort of self-promotional video.
The video serves as an impressive statement of the war room's purpose, particularly given the tire fire of unforced errors and obvious untruths the war room has set ablaze in the days since. Let's take a look at the inaccuracies — and one notable accuracy — of the war room's YouTube debut.
The video's voice-over is delivered in that boastful, hyper-masculine growl native to truck ads, set against a stomping country-rock backing track that comes across like Hank Williams Jr. covering Queen. (Are you ready for some propaganda?)
“Canadian oil and gas makes our world better,” the narrator begins. And then, as if anticipating your raised finger of possible dissent, he quickly adds, “It just does.”
From there, the video unfurls as a stock-image montage of good things and happy people as the voice-over recites a list of virtues attributable to Canada’s oil and gas sector. These include (but are by no means limited to) “more healthy babies, more healthy mothers, more wisdom, more opportunities and more joy all over the planet.” Because global joy is very difficult to measure empirically, I can't say for certain whether this claim is wholly inaccurate or just somewhat overstated. It might be even more difficult to record the overall volume of global wisdom, let alone track its changing level over time or trace it to a particular fuel source. In any case, these claims are spectacular to behold.
Perhaps most remarkable, in the midst of a production that’s about as nuanced as a Super Bowl halftime show, is that one climate detail is absolutely right — a diligent effort to correct an untruth spread by Premier Jason Kenney himself. As I noted recently, Kenney has a penchant for hyperbole, and one of his preferred exaggerations is to call Alberta’s energy business “the most environmentally responsible oil and gas industry on Earth.” This is impossible to square with the fact that producing oil from the oilsands creates more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel than most other sources. So I was delighted to hear the voice-over in the war room’s launch video intone that Alberta’s oil and gas “are produced to among the highest environmental, social and governance standards in the world.” The emphasis is mine. It’s a single word, but it stands out so starkly against the claims that all the world's babies and other opportunity seekers owe their good luck to Prairie fossil fuels that I can't help but wonder if there's a foreign-funded radical mole hidden in the war room's editing suite.
If so, Kenney might do well to promote the mole, because the rest of the Canadian Energy Centre's output has mostly struggled to exhibit the professional communications savvy of a high school yearbook committee. Whatever else it intends to do, the war room has made a spectacle of itself in its first couple of weeks of operation.
An early warning of what was to come arrived in an introductory post at the war room’s website by its founding director, Tom Olsen. The post was soon appended with a correction because Olsen had misidentified his own organization as a “Crown corporation” whereas, in fact, it is a “provincial government corporation.” (This is no minor distinction; the war room was deliberately established as such so that it would be immune to Freedom of Information requests.) Olsen also Freudian-slipped his way into the headlines soon after the launch, when he told Global News, “We are not about attacking, we are about disproving true facts.”
Mere days later, the war room’s hawk-eyed commandos alighted upon their first enemy target: an opinion piece in that hotbed of foreign radical environmentalist samizdat known as the Medicine Hat News. The organization’s director of content, Grady Semmens, fired off an email (later posted for all to read on Twitter) demanding that the newspaper print the response he was preparing “as an OpEd (sic) as quickly as possible.” The Medicine Hat News dutifully did so a few days later, thus to inform their notoriously pinko southeastern Alberta readership that the war room’s “website and social media accounts have prompted a lively discussion about defending the energy industry.”
This turned out to be a significant understatement. The day after the rebuttal was posted, a Calgary-based graphic designer, Edwin Mundt, posted incontrovertible evidence on Twitter that the war room’s corporate logo was identical in all aspects except colour to that of a large American software developer. There soon followed an apologetic statement from the war room itself, as it was revealed that a marketing agency called Lead & Anchor had pilfered the logo on the war room’s behalf. And that the stock photo on the war room’s Twitter account depicted downtown Toronto. And that the dog depicted on Lead & Anchor’s website as belonging to one of its founders was also a stock photo. In short, the war room’s first big media splash was entirely about its own staggering incompetence at the most basic elements of mass communications.
More recently still, the war room received piles of that "earned media" coverage so prized by PR pros after it came to light the centre's staffers are identifying themselves as "reporters" instead of government employees. In one case, this led a Vancouver chef, quoted in a war room communiqué singing the praises of natural gas for cooking, to renounce his participation in the propaganda exercise. Few organizations this side of the 1962 New York Mets have had so ignominious a debut. (Those Mets lost their first nine games en route to the worst season in the history of Major League Baseball, but at least they didn't have to change their logo.)
In place of the elite, nimble fact-checking bureau Kenney had promised for Alberta’s oil and gas sector, the war room appears to be building the media equivalent of a roaring $30-million bonfire of government money in front of the legislature with a mob of trolls warming their wretched claws around it. Still, credit where due, they got it exactly right about Alberta’s oil and gas regulations being subject to environmental standards that are among the highest in the world. Nice work on that one, guys.