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Jason Kenney's $30-million 'war room' finally launches with underwhelming website

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces the launch of a public inquiry into foreign-funded anti-Alberta energy campaigns. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

The mighty voice of Alberta's beleaguered oil industry, the long-promised and much-touted $30-million "energy war room," stumbled out of the starting gate yesterday after a news conference in Calgary graced by the presence of Premier Jason Kenney and Energy Minister Sonya Savage.

At least, as the self-described purveyor of a "fact-based narrative about Canadian energy" that "will reject what is false and promote what is true," it was embarrassing the inaugural online message from Canadian Energy Centre Ltd.'s $200,000-per-annum CEO included an error serious enough to require an immediate official correction.

Have they no fact checkers? Wasn't that the idea?

Still, it's nice to know it's not just the rest of us who are confused about whether the rebranded war room is a government agency, a Crown corporation, or a provincial corporation sneakily set up to avoid accountability under Alberta's Freedom of Information and Privacy (FOIP) legislation.

The confusion, obviously, extended to CEO and managing director Tom Olsen, a former Calgary Herald reporter, Progressive Conservative political staffer and United Conservative Party candidate whose inaugural "column" on CanadianEnergyCentre.ca stated unequivocally that CECL is a Crown corporation.

This resulted in some head scratching, as most earlier news coverage reported it was set up as a private corporation, albeit one owned by the government, to avoid being FOIPed.

By early afternoon, though, a correction appeared on the website explaining "an earlier version of this column identified the Canadian Energy Centre as a Crown corporation. In fact, it is a provincial government corporation. This column has been updated to reflect that fact."

As for whether the new entity is subject to FOIP requests, that remained unclear. At the news conference, Savage told reporters it would be open to FOIPs, CTV reported. The premier's press secretary, Christine Myatt, said in a statement it would not.

Yesterday afternoon, CECL spokesperson Grady Semmens, one of four former Calgary Herald staffers on the war room's eight-member staff, said in an email to AlbertaPolitics.ca that CECL is a provincial corporation, wholly owned by the Alberta government, and not subject to FOIP.

The other CECL employees, according to the website, are former Postmedia columnist Claudia Catteneo, administrator Joanne Birce, former Fraser Institute commentator Mark Milke, former Herald reporter Shawn Logan, Indigenous relations specialist Gregory John, and researcher Sophie Gaussiran-Racine.

While there was plenty of media at the news conference at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and lots of students clad in trades apparel to provide a suitable backdrop for Kenney and Savage, very little was said that was not included in the energy minister's October 9 press release announcing the plan or the news coverage that followed its publication.

The website itself, designed to look a bit like a typical newspaper site, is underwhelming.

The dozen stories posted there yesterday read like business features from the Calgary Herald in the 1980s, around the time Olsen and content director Catteneo were working there. As an alumnus of that newspaper at the same time, I can assure readers this is not a compliment.

Here is a summary of the entire content on the site last night:

  • A long lead story based on controversial claims about emissions from natural gas extraction that makes the counterintuitive assertion "expanding access to Canada's vast fossil fuel resources will significantly lower global greenhouse gas emissions."
  • A similarly long-winded feature claiming liquid natural gas exports are good for the planet, and that people who say otherwise are mistaken.
  • A feature on a First Nations businessman behind a pipeline proposal.
  • Another about a parent employed by a Calgary oil and gas exploration company who is riled up by an environmental group's presentation at his child's class. (Does the Alberta Teachers Association have a take on this, I wonder?)
  • A gee-whiz feature that reveals artificial limbs often contain parts made from petrochemicals. Who knew?
  • Another about a company that uses solar panels to power a drilling site. Takeaway: "Solar can't stand on its own."
  • A clickbait-style What's-Your-Energy-IQ quiz.
  • An oilsands FAQ rich in opportunities for environmental groups to dig in and do some fact checking of their own. Takeaway: billionaire Bill Gates thinks divesting oil stocks won't do anything to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • A first-person story on an Alberta trade mission to Japan by four Indigenous businesspeople.
  • A feature on greenhouses that reveals … wait for it … they can use natural gas to keep the tomatoes from freezing on cold nights!
  • An interview with a University of Alberta engineering professor who thinks there's too much anger in the debate about the oil sands -- on one side, anyway. "Dirty oil or tar sands are not helpful words at all."
  • A feature on a young engineer now completing an MBA who loves working in the oil patch.

The site also includes an infographic that lists all the wonderful things that can be made by the contents of a barrel of oil (rubber ducks! shampoo! medical syringes!), a video ("Canadian oil and gas makes our world better! It just does!"), and a couple of links to friendly stories in the Financial Post and Globe and Mail.

And, um, that's about it. Notwithstanding Kenney's promise we Albertans "will no longer passively accept a campaign of defamation seeking to landlock one of Canada's greatest assets," there was not much that was particularly hard hitting on the site yesterday.

It's all very well to publish obsequious feature stories about people you agree with. It's quite another to get anyone to read them, a prerequisite to their having much impact. This site, as written yesterday, is not going to win a lot of converts.

Of course, CECL's $30-million budget is also supposed to pay for a "rapid response unit" headed by Milke that will fire back at arguments the government disputes, and a research unit to supply data to investors like the Swedish central bank who are selling holdings in carbon-intensive economies like Alberta's.

But if this is supposed to live up to Premier Kenney's vow yesterday that Albertans "refuse to sit here and be a punching bag anymore," he may want to come up with a Plan B.

If this is the most convincing we can be, he might want to ask Matt Wolf, his "executive director of issues management," to tear up some bedsheets for use as white flags.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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