Analysis

Can Albertans be objective about the oil patch?

Last week, an American filmmaker named Gregory Kallenberg launched a Canadian version of Rational Middle Energy Series. It’s a set of short films about energy that tries to live up to its name — meaning it strips out the the extreme opinions that exist at the edges of the debate.

There aren’t many degrees of separation between the average Albertan and the energy sector

Filmmaker and journalist Gregory Kallenberg has created a series of films, the Rational Middle Energy Series, to foster a 'rational' discussion about the future of energy. (Courtesy the Rational Middle Energy Series)

Last week, American filmmaker Gregory Kallenberg launched a Canadian version of Rational Middle Energy Series.

It’s a set of short films about energy that tries to live up to its name — meaning it strips out the the extreme opinions that exist at the edges of the debate like climate change is bunk and the oilsands will kill the earth.

Kallenberg interviewed environmentalists from the Pembina Institute and energy industry executives, as well as academics from the public policy school at the University of Calgary. The films are earnest and educational, they’re not dramatic and they certainly aren’t polarizing. Three of the films focus on the Canadian market.

When the Calgary Eyeopener interviewed Kallenberg Nov. 5, host David Gray asked Kallenberg about the funding of the films — which came from Shell. Kallenberg challenged people to watch the films and decide for themselves.

There was an interesting reaction from the audience; a number of people asked how they could see the films, but others said that Kallenberg could not possibly be objective since the funding came from Shell — something that Kallenberg made clear in the interview.

Another listener wrote in with a link to a blog post written in the United States that delved into Kallenberg’s family history, exposing his family’s ties to the energy industry in Louisiana. The suggestion was that Kallenberg obviously can’t be objective with those connections, so should be ignored.

Energy sector funding at universities 

Up to 10 per cent of Andrew Leach's annual University of Alberta earnings come from a donation by Enbridge. (Courtesy of Andrew Leach)

Andrew Leach faces similar questions about his objectivity, given that his title is the Enbridge Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Alberta. Leach is a well respected and active commentator on energy policy and a prolific tweeter.

After a recent interview, also on the Eyeopener, his objectivity was questioned because his title, but also because he owns shares in publicly-traded energy companies. Leach is very open about potential conflicts and has posted a rather lengthy conflict of interest disclosure.

  • Hear Leach's Eyeopener interview: 

This raises the question of who can be objective in the giant energy debate that we are engaged in. It can be hard to define objectivity in a province like Alberta where there aren’t many degrees of separation between the average Albertan and the energy sector.

I don’t know many people — including myself — who don’t have friends or family who work in the patch. To take that thought one step further, can anyone in Alberta be objective when we benefit from lower taxes?

“Pretty simply,” says Leach. “If your definition of objective is a conversation between two people who are experts in the energy industry, but who have no family ties, employment ties, or historical commercial relationship with either the energy industry or its opponents, that's going to be pretty hard to pull off.”

As for Kallenberg, he says he has never hidden his ties to the industry and considers the discussion to be a red herring.

“I’ve always tried to be transparent about who I am, and who I’m working with. In fact, to drive that point home, we did an entire Rational Middle film on our relationship with Shell.” 

  • Leach and Kallenberg both point to disclosure as key and I’m interested in what you think. Is disclosure enough or is every Albertan conflicted when it comes to energy development?

About the Author

Tracy Johnson

Business reporter

Tracy Johnson is the senior producer of CBC's western digital business unit. She's been a business reporter/producer with CBC on radio, television and online for 15 years. @tracyjohnsoncbc

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