A controversial two-year long inquiry into allegations that foreign actors attempted to unfairly sully the international reputation of Alberta oil and gas is scheduled to be completed by July 30.
On that day, commissioner and forensic accountant Steve Allan’s report will be due to Energy Minister Sonya Savage. She is compelled to publicly release his findings within 90 days of receiving them.
In 2019, Allan was initially tapped to report back by July 2, 2020. He had a budget of $2.5 million to investigate any funding furnished by sinister actors to environmental groups, and whether any organization receiving that money to smack-talk oil also receives government grants or holds charitable status in Canada.
Environmental groups called the exercise a witch hunt designed to intimidate charities that have raised concerns about the oil and gas industry. Environmental law group Ecojustice tried, unsuccessfully, to have a court quash the process.
Throughout the process, the United Conservative Party government granted Allan four deadline extensions and increased his budget to $3.5 million.
About 40 groups named as participants have now seen information Allan gathered about their financing and alleged activities.
Several say Allan has informed them they haven’t done anything wrong.
Some say the findings they were asked to respond to were a jumble of Google searches and conspiracy theories.
Inquiry spokesman Alan Boras says Allan is now reviewing the groups’ responses and incorporating them into his final report, the deadline for which has not changed.
He said Allan is working to complete the report and recommendations “in a balanced, reasoned, positive and constructive manner that supports a rational and meaningful dialogue of the matters before the inquiry.”
However, not all of the participants responded to Allan’s findings by the July 16 deadline, and he is still accepting replies as his own deadline approaches.
As they continue to question the fairness and impartiality of the process, some organizations are already preparing to challenge the final report in court.
Who’s responding and what did they see: 350.org
Cam Fenton is the Canada Team Lead for international group 350.org, which states it wants oilsands development frozen.
On a private server, the inquiry shared information it had gathered about the organization, its founder, and Fenton himself.
He said a letter from the inquiry says they’re not accused of any wrongdoing.
He said an analysis of foreign funding to environmental groups that could possibly be used for campaigns to sully the reputation of Alberta oil and gas casts a ludicrously wide net to include groups that work to protect local wetlands in Ontario, for example.
“At best, it’s an attempt to create a smear campaign, and at worst, it’s a huge waste of money that seems to be creating a more and more shambolic process, the further and further it gets along,” Fenton said.
Fenton said he had about 10 business days to review hundreds of pages of material and submit a response, which is now posted online.
Greenpeace senior energy strategist Keith Stewart says a financial analysis by Deloitte Forensic, which was hired by the inquiry, finds a relatively small amount of foreign funding flowing to organizations for anti-oilsands campaigns during the last 16 years.
CBC has not independently verified the dollar amounts. Stewart says it is a pittance compared to the amount of money raised from Canadian sources for Greenpeace campaigns.
Stewart said the inquiry also told Greenpeace they found no evidence of wrongdoing or illegal activity.
He said the process has been like no other public inquiry, including no public hearings, sworn affidavits, timely disclosure of evidence or adequate time to respond.
He said material excludes scientific and economic evidence about the effects of climate change and instead relies on information published by the Canadian Energy Centre (the Alberta government-funded ‘war room’), and conservative websites such as True North.
“If I got this as an undergrad paper, I would ask them to resubmit or take a failure,” Stewart said.
In their response, Greenpeace asked the commissioner to remove sections of his report that fuel conspiracy theories, contain misinformation and arrive at unsubstantiated conclusions that could be defamatory.
B.C.-based organization Dogwood says Allan also said in a letter that they did no wrong.
Communications director Kai Nagata said the organization only had access to the evidence for about five business days before their deadline to respond on July 16. Most of it was social media screenshots and web links to their campaigns, he said, which the organization stands by.
He said the inquiry appears to be conflating criticism of the oil and gas industry with an intent to harm Alberta as a province.
Posting their response online on Friday allowed Dogwood to raise about $14,000 in a handful of days to help fund what is likely to be a request for a judicial review of the report, Nagata said.
He said inaccurate and conspiratorial information should be removed from the final report. The information has the potential to improperly stoke anger among oil industry supporters — anger that several interviewees said could lead to harassment and attacks on climate activists.
In a response, Allan’s spokesperson said he abhors any threats of harassment or violence.
Nagata said the Kenney government has backed itself into a corner by promising to identify those who seek to thwart the oil industry, when the real problem is finding new economic drivers for Alberta.
“Instead of preparing for that transition, the Alberta government has engaged in a political witch hunt, attacking a list of its enemies, using public money to create an inquiry, which is little more than political ammunition for the United Conservative Party,” he said.
What the commissioner says
Commission spokesperson Boras says it took weeks for some participants to accept invitations to access the evidence, and he’s not sure why.
They were invited to respond to any findings that the inquirer might make and give notice of any inaccuracies. The material was supposed to stay confidential, and the commissioner won’t comment on any of it, Boras said.
He wouldn’t comment on any potential judicial review, but said he is prepared to defend his final report.
Jennifer Henshaw, press secretary to Energy Minister Sonya Savage, said she wouldn’t comment on any of the organizations’ concerns as the minister has not yet seen the final report.
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