Edmonton

Alberta energy war room immune from freedom of information law, rules adjudicator

An adjudicator’s ruling could make it difficult to get information about what’s going on inside Alberta’s government-funded oil and gas war room.

Canadian Energy Centre not a public body, adjudicator says

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, centre, addresses attendees at a press conference to announce the launch of the Canadian Energy Centre at SAIT in Calgary on Dec. 11, 2019, flanked Energy Minister Sonya Savage (left) and Tom Olsen, managing director of the Canadian Energy Centre. Kenney has officially opened the province's energy war room to fight what he calls a campaign of lies about the province's energy industry. (Greg Fulmes/The Canadian Press)

An adjudicator's ruling means the public won't have access to information about what's going on inside Alberta's government-funded oil and gas war room.

In a decision released Monday, adjudicator Catherine Tully said the Canadian Energy Centre isn't subject to provincial freedom of information legislation.

The legislature hasn't designated the government-created corporation as a "public body," groups which are compelled to respond to freedom of information (FOI) requests, Tully said.

The decision was a disappointment, but not a surprise, to Sean Holman, a University of Victoria professor of environmental and climate journalism and FOI expert.

"It is engaged in an activity that is of high public interest," Holman said of the centre on Monday. "The propagandizing by the government on the part of the oil and gas industry is something that voters should have a right to know about."

Canadian Energy Centre (CEC) CEO Tom Olsen said in an email his organization is subject to "vigorous annual audits" by the province's auditor general.

"The CEC will continue to proudly stand up for responsibly developed Canadian energy and the benefits it provides to Canada, North America, and the World," Olsen said.

Although the United Conservative Party government created the CEC as a private corporation, the energy minister is the sole voting shareholder. Its board of directors consists of three Alberta government ministers. The CEC is funded by Alberta's industrial carbon tax, the Technology, Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) fund.

When the government incorporated the CEC in late 2019, ministers said it shouldn't be subject to FOI requests, to avoid information getting into the hands of those who seek to malign Alberta's oil and gas.

In May 2021, CBC reporter Jennie Russell filed an FOI request to the CEC, seeking information about contracts it had awarded.

The centre said it wasn't subject to the process, and referred her to the government's energy ministry.

Russell appealed to Alberta's information and privacy commissioner, who appointed an external adjudicator to hear the issue.

She argued the CEC should be considered a public body, given the control and oversight by the province. Both the CEC and the energy ministry disagreed.

Tully said the legislature could have designated the CEC a public body, but it didn't, and the privacy commissioner has to respect that.

The energy ministry's annual report for 2020-21 says the ministry "includes" the CEC, among other entities, such as the Alberta Energy Regulator.

But Tully said the CEC doesn't qualify as an office or branch of government, either.

Holman said the CEC's operations, including how it's using information and spending money and whose advice it's seeking, are matters of public interest.

"We're not just talking about a run-of-the-mill government operation here," he said. "What we're talking about is a spin centre on behalf of the most controversial industry in the world today."

Critics have mocked some of the CEC's foibles, which include pilfering the design for its initial logo, asking writers to identify themselves to sources as reporters, and waging a campaign against the animated children's movie, Bigfoot Family, which revolves around a fictional Alaskan oil operation.

Academics have accused it of misrepresenting publicly available data.

The government initially budgeted $30 million a year for the CEC. That was pared back to about $4 million in 2020 when the pandemic hit. The 2022-23 proposed budget doesn't include a line item for the CEC, but Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in the legislature Monday it will have about $12 million annually.

The decision came via the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, an independent body that reports directly to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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