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Alberta energy war room's budget slashed in response to coronavirus pandemic

Alberta's energy war room will have its budget slashed for the next three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced Monday. 

Canadian Energy Centre budget to be cut over three-month period

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney addresses attendees at a news conference to announce the launch of the Canadian Energy Centre in December 2019. (Greg Fulmes/Canadian Press)

Alberta's energy war room will have its budget slashed for the next three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced Monday. 

Current spending to the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC) will be cut to "subsistence operations" because most of its budget was intended for paid advertising campaigns that can no longer proceed.

That means the centre will run on a reduced budget for a three-month period or until it can resume regular operations.

If applied on an annual basis, that would reflect a 90-per-cent reduction to the operating budget, from $30 million to $2.84 million, the government said in a news release.

The actual dollar amount the provincial government will save from the cut, or how that funding will be redistributed, weren't spelled out in Monday's announcement.

Premier Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party have long touted the centre as part of a "fight-back" strategy to counter what the government calls false or misleading information about the energy industry.

As part of these budget reductions, the centre will take steps to end all paid advertising campaigns and pause work with outside contractors.

But Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in Monday's statement the provincial government still sees a need for the centre​​​​​​.

"The world still needs reliable energy," Savage said. "While some would like to capitalize on this unprecedented crisis to permanently shut down Canadian oil and gas, we do not believe we should surrender the global energy market to these opponents.

"The CEC will continue to be required to promote and defend Canadian energy."

The centre has made a series of errors since it was first introduced in 2019.

In its first month of operations, it had to abandon its original logo over copyright infringement, and it failed to tell an interview subject about the CEC's connection to the provincial government.

Later, a series of tweets targeting the New York Times prompted an apology from the CEC's managing director.

Given the amount of criticism the CEC has taken for these missteps since it was created, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for the government to step back and rethink whether the CEC is a good use of public dollars at all, Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams said.

Williams wasn't surprised by the cuts because, as she says, it's difficult for the government to justify expenditures on anything that isn't an essential service.

"In a climate where the government is dealing with significant cuts in revenue because of oil prices, significant expenditures to manage the COVID-19 crisis and the fact that they had made additional cuts to education for example, it was pretty difficult to justify setting aside funds for something that really wasn't producing anything of tangible value," Williams said.

NDP Opposition energy critic Irfan Sabir said these temporary budget reductions to the CEC are nothing to celebrate. 

Sabir said the CEC hasn't done anything to improve the issues facing Alberta's energy industry, noting the money in the centre's $30 million budget could be better spent elsewhere, especially after $128 million was recently redirected from the province's school boards to use in COVID-19 response efforts.

"I think the government didn't go far enough. They need to shut (the CEC) down for once and for all," Sabir said.

With files from Andrew Brown.

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