New changes to ‘anti-Alberta’ inquiry are ‘McCarthy-esque,’ expert says

By Catherine Griwkowsky September 16, 2020

The province’s official public inquiry into “anti-Alberta energy campaigns” has broader new terms for its framework. 
The terms delineate that the inquiry’s commission won’t have to determine whether claims made by an environmental or advocacy group about the oilsands are “false or misleading” — a major driver of the inquiry — and re-defines the scope of “anti-Alberta” activity.
Martin Olszynski, natural resources professor at the University of Calgary, called the inquiry into the sources of foreign funding for anti-Alberta energy campaigns increasingly “McCarthy-esque” and “anti-democratic.”
“It’s hard to imagine a more opaque and bizarre inquiry,” he told AB Today in an interview.
Olszynski said he has always been critical of the inquiry, but the latest changes to the terms of reference make the inquiry even “less reasonable.”
The new terms expand the inquiry’s scope to include “attempts to directly or indirectly delay or frustrate the timely, economic, efficient and responsible development of Alberta’s oil and gas resources and the transportation of those resources to commercial markets, by any means.” 
According to Olszynski, that language could mean even mild critics, in the same vein as late former premier Peter Lougheed, who questioned the pace and scope of oilsands development, could be targeted. 
The terms also lack a cash threshold for foreign funding, meaning charities who receive funds from foreign sources — even $1 — could be caught in the wide net. 
Even though seeking foreign funding is standard operating procedure for many non-profits, an organization being named in the commission’s final report could create the impression of “malfeasance” even when there is no wrongdoing, Olszynski said.
Under the terms, commissioner Steve Allen is also authorized to withhold and redact information garnered by the inquiry at his sole discretion, another feature Olszynski criticized. 
Inquiry’s probe will mostly happen via writing
For his part, Allen said the inquiry’s “engagement process will be conducted primarily in writing.”
In a statement Tuesday, he said the commission will exchange “correspondence and written submission” with “parties who are granted standing to review and respond to issues of interest to the Inquiry.” 
A number of environmental groups targeted by the UCP have questioned why they haven’t been interviewed already, as the commission was formed over a year ago.
Allen said in-person meetings may also be conducted, but he is hoping to strike a balance between “the need for an efficient and cost-effective process.”
The inquiry was initially supposed to wrap up in July, but the government granted Allan an extension until October 30, with an extra $1 million, bringing the total budget to $3.5 million.
False or misleading claims won’t be debunked
Ruling on whether claims made by activist groups contain false or misleading information is not on the table. Allen said it would be too much work for the inquiry to tackle. 
However, its original mandate was driven by the UCP’s assertion of the existence of a co-ordinated campaign to defame the oilsands using “incomplete, misleading or false information” about the energy industry.
On the linguistic front, Allan said “anti-Alberta” — part of the official name of the inquiry — is being used as a geographical modifier and said he will not be determining whether a campaign opposed to oil and gas development is “against Alberta.”
Kenney stands by inquiry, slams legal challenge by Ecojustice
Asked about the change to the terms of reference, Premier Jason Kenney told reporters he hadn’t had a chance to read them but said the inquiry had to be extended due to a “nuisance lawsuit” from “foreign-funded special interests.”
Kenney was referring to a legal challenge from EcoJustice that required the terms of the inquiry as well as the rules for procedure and practice to be made publicly available. 
“The very fact they’re trying to shut down the inquiry is perfect proof that they do not want the transparency that the commission is about,” Kenney said. 
NDP Energy critic Irfan Sabir said the government’s focus should be on getting Albertans in the oil and gas sector back to work.
“To date, Albertans have not received any value whatsoever from this inquiry,” Sabir told AB Today in a statement. “It took Jason Kenney’s hand-picked commissioner over a year and almost $3.5 million just to develop the rules. Now the commissioner has said he can’t even deliver on the inquiry’s mandate.”