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Foreign donors opened wallets to ‘hurt’ Alberta energy sector: Report

‘We have a right to be outraged,’ said Energy Minister Sonya Savage of the scale of foreign funds aimed at damaging the oil and gas industry

EDMONTON — The inquiry launched by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s government into the scale of foreign funds aimed at damaging the province’s oil and gas industry has issued its long-awaited report, finding that foreign donors provided nearly $1.3 billion in funds for Canadian environmental campaigns between 2003 and 2019.

However, compiled over two years by Calgary accountant Steve Allan, the report was only able to directly link far smaller amounts of money to anti-Alberta energy activities, with few conclusions drawn about what activities the money was actually used for.

“It cannot be suggested that all funding designated for Canadian environmental initiatives was intended to support anti-Alberta energy campaigns, although most certainly some of it was,” the report notes.

The report fulfils a major election promise by Kenney’s United Conservative Party and lays out the extensive network of environmental organizations, and some of their funding sources, that have sought to limit the growth — or shut down entirely — Alberta’s oil and gas sector.

“From my perspective, I was surprised at how much we found, how co-ordinated and sophisticated and well-funded these campaigns were,” said Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage in an interview. “It was a lot of money, coming from across the border, from foreign jurisdictions that came in to influence domestic policy, to influence legislation and regulatory matters, policy, and we should care about that.”

The inquiry, launched in June 2019 and inspired by prior work on the subject by researcher Vivian Krause, faced considerable scrutiny and public controversy.

Initially due in July 2020, Allan’s deadline was repeatedly pushed back, while the inquiry’s budget grew from $2.5 million to $3.5 million. The inquiry’s legitimacy was also challenged, unsuccessfully, in Alberta court and has been described as a “smear campaign,” a “political witch hunt,” and, per NDP leader Rachel Notley, “a complete waste of money.”

“Our provincial government must be focused on finding jobs, not looking for enemies. Instead, they are deliberately lying about the funding being provided to charitable groups and the intended purpose of that money,” Notley said in a statement.

Said Savage: “It’s about finding and documenting a piece of history — an important piece of history that harmed Alberta — and understanding what the tactics were, what happened. I’m more interested in looking to the future and making sure we learn from that.”

In spite of the controversy that dogged the inquiry, the report, released Thursday morning in Edmonton, did make a number of financial findings, while stating clearly no wrongdoing was found over the course of the investigation.

“No individual or organization, in my view, has done anything illegal” Allan writes in the report. “Indeed, they have exercised their rights of free speech.”

Simon Dyer, deputy executive director of the Pembina Institute, a Canadian energy think tank, said they were pleased to find this key finding of no wrongdoing on Pembina’s part, or any other group.

“In general, it just goes to show a costly and wasteful exercise that I think is going to continue to damage Alberta’s reputation,” Dyer said in an interview.

Of the $1.3 billion found to be donated by foreign groups, $897 million went to 31 Canadian environmental non-governmental organizations, nearly $22 million to six environmental legal organizations, and a further $6 million to other anti-Alberta resource organizations. A further $352 million, the report says, remained within the United States, but “focused on Canadian-based environmental initiatives.”

Allan’s inquiry identifies 21 groups that have been engaged in anti-Alberta energy activities, deemed “participants” by the report.

That list includes well-known Canadian organization such as the David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace Canada and Sierra Club Canada Foundation, all of which have loudly, and publicly, opposed energy projects in Canada. (The identities of the additional non-participants, which are still foreign funded, are redacted within the Allan inquiry report.)

Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, said they’re proud of their work on environmentalism.

“What I heard the minister saying … was organizations that are concerned about these things have been effective, and we really wish they weren’t,” Stewart said in an interview. “Ignoring the changes that are coming to the energy economy globally because of climate change does a disservice to Albertans.”

From the overall $1.3 billion, the report identifies $54.1 million in foreign funds that were given specifically for “anti-Alberta resource development activity.”

A chart detailing the funds given by foreign funders to the 21 “participant” organizations totals nearly $152 million, between 2003 and 2019.

Large sums from the nearly $1.3 billion total went to organizations that are not considered to have participated in anti-Alberta oil activities; one organization, its identity redacted, received $429 million of that total.

“The high-level numbers are accurate because they’re publicly available information, but a complete misrepresentation, and a lack of information, and suppositions, about what they’re for,” said Dyer.

The report also found $145 million in public funding, from all levels of government in Canada, to groups that the inquiry believes engaged in anti-Alberta energy activities.

The Allan report, over the course of 657 pages, tracks the development of anti-oilsands campaigns through the 2000s and 2010s, listing defunct websites, research reports published over the years and documenting the history of political activism against energy project development.

“It hurts people in Alberta, it hurts the province’s oil and gas sector,” said Savage. “We have a right to be mad, we have a right to be outraged.”

In a statement posted to the inquiry’s website, Allan said his role with the inquiry was finished and will have “no further comment.”

At a Thursday press conference, Savage said that while no illegal behaviour was found, she believes that Albertans feel that accepting foreign funding for anti-energy activism would be wrong.

“The report was never meant to be something that would censure or impugn or punish,” Savage said. “It doesn’t impact or detract from the fact that Albertans were hurt, people lost their jobs.”

Ian Bruce, the deputy executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation, described the report as “dangerous political theatre.”

“It’s overtly biased and filled with errors and unsubstantiated claims,” Bruce said. “It’s simply political theatre, the way that this report was released today.”

Each of the “participant” organizations, the inquiry concludes, having surveyed website information, letter writing campaigns and research articles, “has engaged in opposition to the development of Alberta’s oil and gas industry in a broad and general sense and therefore has participated in an anti-Alberta energy campaign.”

Still, Allan notes, he’s unable to conclude whether or not this activism actually led to the end of Canadian energy projects.

“While anti-Alberta energy campaigns may have played a role in the cancellation of some oil and gas developments, I am not in a position to find that these campaigns alone caused project delays or cancellations,” Allan writes in the report.

Given all these findings, Allan makes six recommendations to government. A number of them are adjacent to the specific findings of the inquiry, including one to “create an opportunity for meaningful dialogue among First Nations communities, and between First Nations Communities and other Albertans and Canadians to advance understanding and reconciliation with a focus on economic development.”

Another suggests bringing together stakeholder groups to advance Alberta “as a leader in energy science … to produce low-cost, low-carbon energy supplies.”

That’s an effort that, presumably, would work in conjunction with a Natural Resource Development Strategy for Canada, and a re-brand of Alberta energy.

Allan also makes a recommendation for funding transparency. He proposes updating standards for not-for-profit and charitable organizations that “provide a level of consistency and a more level playing field with the corporate sector.”

“I am also troubled by the almost unfettered ability of any organization, or group, to advance their self-interest without full transparency and accountability,’ Allan writes.

Savage said some of these suggestions — such as updating charitable reporting — would require co-operation from the federal government.

“The main thing here is we have to make sure that these types of campaigns don’t target energy sources of the future,” said Savage. “It’s money looking for a cause and it’s money looking for the next thing to oppose, so we have to be smarter, going forward.”

Source: National Post