Inquiry into alleged anti-Alberta energy campaigns doesn't have time to fact-check statements: commissioner

A year after Alberta launched an inquiry to investigate whether alleged "foreign-funded special interests" are spreading misinformation about the province's energy industry, the commissioner leading it says his team doesn't have the time or resources to prove whether particular statements are misleading or false.

$3.5-million inquiry has yet to release interim report or interviewee names to the public

Commissioner Steve Allan says his inquiry into alleged foreign-funded, anti-Alberta oil and gas campaigns will not fact-check whether those campaigns were disseminating accurate or false information. (CBC)

A year after Alberta launched an inquiry to investigate whether alleged "foreign-funded special interests" are spreading misinformation about the province's energy industry, the commissioner leading it says his team doesn't have the time or resources to prove whether particular statements are misleading or false.

On Monday, in an update to the terms of reference that changes the scope of the Public Inquiry Into Funding of Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns, commissioner Steve Allan wrote that he doesn't have the time or resources for the "colossal undertaking" it would be to fact-check claims made by those campaigns.

"In many, if not most, cases evaluation of whether a statement made in opposition to the development of Alberta's oil and gas resources is 'misleading or false' is an enormous task, and impractical for the commission to undertake within the resources available to it," Allan wrote.

The inquiry says it still retains another part of its original mandate: to check the accounting to determine whether money coming from outside Canada has funded environmental campaigns against Alberta's oil and gas industry. 

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

The terms of the inquiry have been changed before, with a tweak made through an order in council that hinted at the possibility foreign funding of anti-Alberta energy campaigns may not have actually happened. The terms originally said, "the commissioner shall inquire into anti-Alberta energy campaigns that are supported, in whole or in part, by foreign organizations," but that was changed in June to state that the "commissioner shall inquire into the role of foreign funding, if any, in anti-Alberta energy campaigns." 

With the latest change on Monday, critics pounced to question the whole purpose of the inquiry.

"The commissioner has said he doesn't have the time or resources to determine what is false and misleading information. That's a bit of an eye-opener for us. We're wondering, what's the point of a commission at all?" asked Devon Page, executive director of Ecojustice.

The environmental non-profit has filed an injunction to halt the inquiry until a hearing on its legal challenge can be held. Ecojustice filed a judicial review application in November 2019 that asked the Court of Queen's Bench to shut down the inquiry, alleging it had been created for "partisan political purposes" outside the authority of the Public Inquiries Act and had been tainted by bias from the outset.

Premier Jason Kenney launched the inquiry in July 2019 to see whether "foreign-funded special interest" groups have been disseminating incomplete, misleading or false information about the Alberta oil and gas industry — allegedly costing the province jobs and potential investments.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney launched the inquiry in July 2019 to see whether 'foreign-funded special interest' groups have been disseminating false information about the Alberta oil and gas industry. Its budget has since been increased by $1 million. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

At the time, the premier spoke 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. 

Kenney alleged 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, and questioned why.

Kenney's United Conservative Party government was accused of attacking the organizations' right to free speech and being unconstitutional.

'What the premier was trying to do is silence public debate'

During the past year, the inquiry's completion date has been pushed back by four months, and another million was added to its initial $2.5-million price tag.

Despite it being a public inquiry, Allan has not released his interim report to the public — just the government — and he has not disclosed who he has interviewed as part of his investigation.

Multiple environmental groups that were accused of denigrating the oil and gas industry say they have not been interviewed. 

Page said no part of the inquiry has been conducted in a way that is consistent with legislation, describing it as both a politically motivated "witch hunt" and a "gong show." 

"What's the commission trying to hide? Why won't they release the documents upon which they intend to rely in order to issue a report?" Page asked. 

"What the premier was trying to do is silence public debate."

Premier stands by mandate

On Tuesday, Kenney said he hadn't read the update or spoken to Allan since the beginning of the process, as the commissioner is independent. 

However, he said he stands by the original mandate.

"We need to get to the bottom of a foreign-funded campaign to landlock Alberta energy: that's why we committed to the commission in the last election," Kenney said.

"I know the commission has had to spend some of its time by what I would call a nuisance lawsuit, coming from some of those foreign-funded special interests that want to avoid any kind of transparency or accountability for the lies that they've told about Alberta's responsible energy sector," he said. 

Massive 'misuse of public funds,' expert says

Martin Olszynski, a lawyer and associate professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in environmental and administrative law, said when an inquiry is ordered, one of the first things that happens once the terms of reference are set is that the rules of procedure are outlined.

But he said in this instance, those details were not provided until Monday, a year after the inquiry began. 

"The commissioner, in carrying out his work, if he doesn't afford people procedural fairness … then his findings can be challenged in court," Olszynski said. 

"So I think he is sort of realizing now that he can't really square these two worlds.

"He really has to torque the terms of reference … to come up with an entirely non-controversial conclusion."

Olszynski said this means the inquiry will discover what already widely known — that there is foreign funding, which is common in the charitable sector, and that opposition exists to oil development, for reasons like groundwater contamination or extirpation of local caribou populations.

"It's a massive waste of money," Olszynski said. "In my view this is … a misuse of public funds."

Allan was to submit a final report to the energy minister no later than Oct. 30, but has indicated that he'll be requesting another extension of time and possibly more funds.

With files from Colleen Underwood

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