Opinion | Kenney's public inquiry into 'foreign-funded' enemies new face on old, ineffective strategy

The public inquiry announced Thursday is the latest addition to Premier Jason Kenney's narrative that Alberta is under attack from outside forces.

$2.5M initiative is latest addition to premier's plan to fight against anti-oilpatch forces

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta will spend $2.5 million to fund a year-long public inquiry into what he calls 'foreign-funded' attacks on Alberta's oil industry. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

It will take a year to complete and cost $2.5 million.

So, it will be a waste of both time and money.

Say hello to the Alberta government's "public inquiry into the foreign funding of anti-Alberta energy campaigns."

The inquiry is ostensibly about collecting evidence on "foreign-funded" groups that have managed to landlock Alberta's oil — and then using that evidence to, in the words of Premier Jason Kenney, "hold them to account."

This is the latest addition to Kenney's narrative that Alberta is under attack from outside forces, whether it be the federal Liberal government or British Columbia's NDP government.

Or environmental groups.

'Foreign-funded enemy'

Kenney's "foreign-funded" enemies include Greenpeace and the Pembina Institute. Greenpeace, of course, has been on an anti-oilsands campaign for years, with demonstrations that often involve ropes and chains to dangle protesters from tall buildings or attach themselves to big machinery. But it's not as if we need a public inquiry to figure out their opposition to pipelines.

The Pembina Institute, on the other hand, is based in Calgary and has proven itself over the years to be a moderate and pragmatic environmental organization. In its own words: "We advocate for a strong, science-based approach to policy, regulation, environmental protection and energy development."

In the past, Pembina has said it gets about 10 per cent of its funding from foreign sources and 90 per cent from Canadians. Based on that ratio, Pembina is arguably much more Canadian-funded than foreign-funded.

But in Kenney's world, this qualifies Pembina as a "foreign-funded" enemy.

And as human history has demonstrated, it's always easier to attack someone when you discredit them. It's easier to declare war when you demonize your enemy.

And for Kenney, this is indeed a war. He's even planning to spend $30 million on a "war room" to counter what he calls the lies and misinformation about Alberta's energy industry.

Kenney has yet to provide details of how the war room will function.

Not clear how this will work

And it's not clear what he expects the public inquiry to achieve, other than to act as a public relations tool for the government to show how it's "standing up" for Alberta.

Because the inquiry is mandated by a provincial government, it won't be able to force any foreign groups to testify. But, again, it's not as if international groups such as Greenpeace are hiding their opposition to the oilsands.

And even though Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer hopes the public inquiry will stop the groups' future opposition to Alberta's energy industry, nobody can explain how that would work.

There is an issue of free speech here. Groups opposed to the oilsands and pipelines are allowed to oppose the oilsands and pipelines.

Then there's the awkward fact that it's not "foreign-funded" groups that have stymied pipeline construction, it's the courts.

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, for example, was stopped in its tracks by the Federal Court of Appeal last August, when it said more had to be done to protect the environment and consult with Indigenous peoples.

Most opposition from First Nations

While two of the groups that filed legal objections to the project were environmental organizations, most of the opposition to the project came from First Nations.

Then there's the fact that environmental groups worry about fossil fuel emissions and climate change. Their opposition to pipelines is not about punishing Alberta but stopping what they perceive to be a threat to mankind.

Their obsession with Alberta's energy industry does allow Kenney to ask a legitimate question: "Why is the environmental lobby focused on the oilsands?"

The largest source of human-produced emissions worldwide is burning coal to produce electricity. It's not the oilsands.

But for decades, a succession of Alberta Progressive Conservative governments dragged their feet on environmental protection and allowed environmental groups to simplistically turn the oilsands into a symbol of greenhouse gases run amok. The fact is while the oilsands are the fastest-growing source of emissions in Canada, they are not the largest.

A bigger source is our gasoline-burning cars and our light-duty trucks.

By focusing on the oilsands, some environmentalist groups have embraced the mistaken notion that we can solve the problem of man-made climate change by shutting down the oilsands.

Over the years, Alberta politicians have reacted to opposition by alternating between blustering outrage and foot-stomping frustration. Neither of which stopped any protests or prevented any court challenges.

Kenney's public inquiry might be more aggressive but it seems to be merely a new take on an old, ineffective strategy.

About the Author

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.