The Alberta government’s inquiry into alleged foreign-funded campaigns against the province’s energy sector spent approximately $97,560 commissioning reports critics say downplay the climate crisis and veer into conspiracy.
“My jaw hit the floor pretty hard,” said Martin Olszynski, an environmental law professor at the University of Calgary who reviewed the reports as a participant in the inquiry.
The reports were posted to the website of the Public Inquiry Into Funding of Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns late Wednesday. The inquiry’s website says the reports don’t represent “findings or positions taken by the inquiry.”
One report is authored by Barry Cooper, a University of Calgary political scientist with close ties to the climate denial group Friends of Science, which has claimed climate change is caused by the sun. In it, Cooper questions without evidence if First Nations opposed to fossil fuel extraction were “coerced or bribed by environmentalist missionaries,” and linked the environmental movement to “Marxism.”
Reached by email, Cooper said he believes the climate is influenced by several factors, “from plate tectonics to solar radiation variability, earth orbital variability (e.g., Milankovitch Cycles etc.), atmospheric and oceanic oscillations, cloud cover and aerosol variations, and yes, greenhouse gasses.” (Scientific consensus is that human use of fossil fuels is the main contributor to the climate crisis.)
“The term ‘climate denialism’ as I am sure you know is a silly term analogous to holocaust denialism; that is, it is simply an insult,” Cooper said.
Another report by historian T. L. Nemeth claims a “transnational progressive movement” of environmental groups — including some with the backing from a foundation established by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who is often the subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — are seeking to “fundamentally transform the western industrial capitalist economic system” in an “international assault” on Alberta’s energy industry.
“The spark or catalyst for an acceleration of this Great Transformation has been the coronavirus pandemic of 2020,” Nemeth wrote.
Energy In Depth, a project by U.S. oil and gas lobby group Independent Petroleum Association of America, also contributed a report. It argues that environmental activists have been given a “free pass” by news media, and that energy producers face them on an “uneven playing field.”
The $3.5-million independent probe, which delivered on a campaign promise from Premier Jason Kenney and was started in 2019, is meant to examine environmental groups the government says used foreign funds to campaign against Alberta oil and gas while allowing fossil fuel production to expand in the Middle East and United States.
In a phone interview Thursday, spokesperson Alan Boras stressed the inquiry has not yet come to a conclusion. The reports were “deemed to be important views” but aren’t the only ones being considered, he said.
The Alberta inquiry spent approximately $97,560 commissioning reports that critics say downplay the climate crisis and veer into conspiracy. #ableg #cdnpoli
“The reality is the inquiry, it has no mandate to speak to the status of the climate,” he said. “It's not about the climate, it's about foreign funding.”
The inquiry sought a variety of perspectives, Boras said.
“Anybody who contributes to the inquiry has a point of view, regardless of where they come from, whether they have a view on the status of the climate, wherever they fall in the spectrum of the debate,” Boras said.
“There's lots that's been written about changing climate and that information will also be considered within the mandate of the inquiry.”
The inquiry paid $6,125 to Cooper, $27,840 to Nemeth and US$50,000 to Energy In Depth for the reports, Boras confirmed.
Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist at the University of Alberta, said the reports raise questions about whether the inquiry is a good use of public funds, and whether it is even accomplishing the goal it was tasked with.
“I was just flabbergasted,” Leach said.
“That these are the voices the inquiry is seeking out is astounding… Is this even remotely what you’d expect with an inquiry with this kind of budgetary scope and latitude?”
Boras said the inquiry is largely centred on forensic accounting. Its budget has also gone towards that process, along with contractors doing legal and communications work and the commissioner’s salary, Boras said.
“More information will be reported on in due course,” he said.
The office of Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage redirected questions to the inquiry.
Inquiry report is due in two weeks
The inquiry’s final report is due on Jan. 31.
Originally allocated a budget of $2.5 million and set to be finished in July 2020, it received an additional $1 million and several deadline extensions last year, with Savage citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a main reason for the delay.
The probe’s terms of reference have changed twice since it began, with commissioner Steve Allan saying the inquiry didn’t have the time and resources to answer key questions.
Allan has come under fire for not reaching out to environmental groups the government has accused of participating in the alleged campaign, and the inquiry itself has come under fire from critics who say its foundation is a baseless conspiracy theory. In July, Alberta’s ethics commissioner concluded Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer did not breach conflict of interest rules in appointing Allan, who had donated to Schweitzer in the past.
The inquiry has produced an interim report that was submitted to the government but not released to the public.
The reports posted Wednesday are part of the inquiry’s engagement process. It has sought “direct feedback” from industry groups, academics, public policy organizations, environmentalists, business and government leaders and others, its website says.
The inquiry also invited 47 people and organizations to apply for formal standing as a “participant for commentary” and give feedback on the reports. Most chose not to apply, and in the end, 11 people and groups — including Olszynski — were selected to give feedback, the inquiry’s website says.
The inquiry has not published the names of the groups and people invited and selected to participate. Boras said that information might be shared later.
Olszynski posted a copy of his submission to the response Thursday. In it, he said the reports “minimize or outright dismiss the reality and seriousness of climate change, even though none of their authors appear to be trained in climate science.” He also noted the reality of climate change is important because genuine concern about the crisis is one explanation for why activists would campaign against Alberta oil.
“These reports are replete with generalizations, speculation, conjecture and even conspiracy,” he wrote.
In a phone interview Thursday, Olszynski said he participated because he was “concerned” Allan wasn’t receiving a “broad perspective on these issues.” Because Allan is bound by rules around procedural fairness, Olszynski said he has faith his concerns will be taken into account.
So far, the inquiry appears to be a mess of the Alberta government’s own making, said University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas. Though some might have cut their losses by now, she added, the government seems more focused on ideology than reality.
“They want to craft an alternative narrative,” she said.
“It’s this idea that if you don’t agree with us about fossil fuels, you can’t be a good Albertan, and if you’re not a good Albertan, you’re not an Albertan.”