Alberta to spend $2.5M on public inquiry into 'foreign-funded special interests'

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says his government will spend $2.5 million on a provincial inquiry into "foreign-funded special interests" and their campaigns to stop development in the oilsands. 

Premier Jason Kenney lumped together environmental groups and more in announcing year-long inquiry

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says his government will spend $2.5 million on a public inquiry into environmental groups opposed to the oilsands, and 'foreign interference.' (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says his government will spend $2.5 million on a provincial inquiry into "foreign-funded special interests" and their campaigns to stop development in the oilsands.

The inquiry, which will be headed by accountant Steve Allan, will have no legal authority beyond the province and cannot compel testimony for a possible public hearing from those outside Alberta, a news conference was told Thursday. 

The premier spoke at the news conference about ill-defined allegations of Russian involvement in landlocking Alberta oil, the suggestion OPEC supports shutting in the province's energy resources, and the funding of environmental groups by the Rockefeller and Tides foundations, among others. 

"There's never been a formal investigation into all aspects of the anti-Alberta campaign," Kenney said when asked why an inquiry was needed when the information in question is available in public documents. 

"The mandate for commissioner Allen will be to bring together all of the available information."

Free speech

There are no regulations preventing environmental groups from accepting money from outside Canada and no laws preventing an environmental group from advocating for environmental action. 

Recent changes in federal regulations removed certain limits on political activity, something used by the previous Conservative federal government to conduct audits against environmental groups. 

Kenney rejected the suggestion he's attacking the right to free speech of environmental organizations, but did not rule out legal actions against those groups, and said those within Alberta could be compelled to provide public testimony before the inquiry. 

Kenney said those environmental groups have only damaged Canada's industry and have not managed to limit consumption or production of fossil fuels around the world. 

He suggested environmental groups have not put the same amount of effort into fighting the rise of oil and gas production in the United States.

"Why Canada alone? Why Alberta alone? And that's the point of this inquiry." 

'Show trial'

Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, dismissed the inquiry as an attempt to silence organizations such as Greenpeace. 

"This is a public inquiry, which is, you know, they admit they're not gonna be able to do much with it," he said. 

"It's basically kind of a show trial to try and intimidate critics and people concerned about climate change into silence."

He said oil and gas development and pipelines are being fought across the planet and the world needs to wean itself off fossil fuels. 

After Kenney's announcement, Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute also spoke out to defend the non-profit think-tank that's focused on energy. He denied Kenney's accusation, made during the news conference, that Pembina had accepted $8 million from foreign interests to oppose and challenge Alberta's energy industry.

 "Over the past about 15 years, 85 per cent of Pembina's revenue comes from Canadian sources, and those would be provincial, territorial and the federal government," he said.

Dyer also said detailed funding information is available on the organization's website.

"Over the same time period, about 15 per cent of our revenue comes from international sources, which is typical for many not-for-profits and even for-profit industries."

'Not the work that Pembina does'

Dyer said he has no idea why the premier would single out his organization as one that's damaging Alberta's economy. He said Pembina has never engaged in direct pipeline opposition.

"We've never appeared in a regulatory or legal hearing on any direct action to oppose pipelines," Dyer said. "That's not the work, that's not what Pembina does. We're the Pembina Institute for appropriate development. And sure we've been a critic of the industry where we've seen environmental issues that need to be addressed, and at the same time we've given credit to this industry where progress has been made on things like advances in conservation and land use in terms of climate policies that were introduced to reduce oilsands emissions."

Opposition NDP member Deron Bilous said the inquiry is the equivalent of hiring someone to do a glorified Google search.

"This is a fool's errand," he said.

"I don't believe this will help Alberta further its interests in accessing pipelines and expanding our market access."

Inquiry will last a year

Alberta Justice Minister and Attorney General Doug Schweitzer said the inquiry will take one year to complete; the first phase will include research and the second could include public hearings. 

A final report will be due to the government on July 2, 2020, and could include recommendations from Allan, although it's unclear what those would cover. 

"The campaign to landlock Alberta oil has caused over a decade of reputational harm to Alberta's energy sector," said Schweitzer in a news release.

"We will determine next steps once the commissioner files his report, and if there is evidence of illegal activity, we will take further action."

It's part of a larger strategy the government has initiated to fight what it calls misinformation targeting Alberta oil and gas. 

Previously, the government announced it would spend $30 million to establish a "war room" to fight against what it considers inaccurate or misleading information on Alberta's oil and gas industry. 


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.

With files from The Canadian Press