Edmonton

Alberta energy 'war room' may be subject to freedom-of-information law

The office of Alberta's information commissioner says it has not determined whether the province's controversial energy "war room" is subject to freedom of information legislation, despite the United Conservative government's insistence the war room's structure allows it to evade such scrutiny.

Information commissioner's office says it has not tested government claim war room is exempt

Information commissioner Jill Clayton's office says it has not tested the government's claim that its energy 'war room' is exempt from Alberta's freedom-of-information law that allows public scrutiny of government bodies. (Sam Martin/CBC)

The office of Alberta's information commissioner says it has not determined whether the province's controversial energy "war room" is subject to freedom of information legislation, despite the United Conservative government's insistence the war room's structure allows it to evade such scrutiny.

An expert in freedom of information (FOIP) says the commissioner should launch an investigation into whether the public can request records from an organization he calls "profoundly undemocratic."

"It means that there is perhaps an opportunity for us to get information about what exactly is happening in the war room," Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman said in an interview this week.

"The war room is an extremely controversial body. It is operating outside of democratic norms."

In October 2019, the government said its decision to establish the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC) as a private corporation meant its internal operations were exempt from Alberta's freedom of information act.

That law, frequently used by journalists and political parties, allows the public to request records from public institutions to hold them accountable.

"The CEC's internal operations are not subject to FOIP, as this would provide a tactical and/or strategic advantage to the very foreign-funded special interests the CEC is looking to counter," a spokesperson for Premier Jason Kenney said then. 

But information commissioner Jill Clayton's office said the issue is not settled.

"Since it was incorporated as a provincial corporation, our office has not made a decision on jurisdiction with respect to the Canadian Energy Centre," spokesperson Scott Sibbald said in an email. 

"Specifically, a decision has not been made on whether the FOIP Act applies to it."

Energy Minister Sonya Savage said incorporating the war room would make it more efficient. But advocates criticized the move to shield it from FOIP, calling it a blatant attempt to escape accountability. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Sibbald said the office can test whether the centre is subject to FOIP after receiving a complaint from the public; for example, from someone who submitted a request to the centre but was denied. He said no one has made a complaint or raised a concern with Clayton.

Under the law, Clayton could open an investigation. Sibbald said Clayton has not because "generally, commissioners will open investigations on their own motion when there is evidence of contravention of the law."

"We cannot recall a situation where an investigation was opened only to determine jurisdiction."

Clayton declined an interview request. Sibbald said it would be inappropriate for the commissioner to comment because her office is dealing with privacy complaints involving the war room.

A spokesperson for Energy Minister Sonya Savage initially promised to provide comment but then said the government stands by its previous statements.

Public scrutiny essential, expert says

The UCP government launched the war room in December 2019 to promote Alberta oil and gas and combat what it calls misinformation about the industry. Three government ministers comprise its board of directors.

Since then, it became embroiled in a series of gaffes including a copyright infringement spat, tweets attacking the New York Times, and its campaign against a Netflix family film.

"This is a profoundly undemocratic body, not just because it is secretive, but also because it is attacking foes, or supposed foes, of the oil and gas industry in a way that we certainly haven't seen from governments across this country," Holman said.

The centre's budget was $10 million in 2020-21 and is expected to be $12 million this year.

Holman said public scrutiny of the war room is critical.

"If we can get some daylight into its operations, that will really help the public make better decisions on whether or not this is an operation that is worth spending taxpayer money on, and whether it is an operation that is behaving correctly according to what we would expect in a democratic society."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennie Russell

Investigative reporter

Jennie Russell is a reporter with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. Jennie specializes in accountability journalism and her work has been widely credited with forcing transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Contact Jennie at jennie.russell@cbc.ca and follow her on Twitter @jennierussell_.

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