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Alberta energy minister vows 'war room' will return, after government slashes budget for three months

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Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage announces loan to the Orphan Well Association on March 2, 2020. Image: Sonya Savage/Twitter

Is it possible the United Conservative Party has a conscience?

I know, I know, this seems highly unlikely.

Even if it were true, like the Grinch's heart, it's bound to be a shriveled organ, at least two sizes too small.

Still, if not a conscience exactly, the temporary winding down of the embarrassment of Alberta's energy "war room" earlier today suggests the UCP can feel shame, or at least that some members of the party's strategic brain trust can read a public opinion poll or gauge the tenor of the phone calls doubtless pouring into MLAs' constituency offices over the past few hours.

On the weekend, the government announced it was withdrawing its two-week-old promise to fund school boards until the end of this term, with or without students in the schools, a decision that will send 26,000 teachers and school support workers onto federal employment insurance.

Showing a level of contempt for working people, parents and voters that would have shocked even Conservative premiers like Ralph Klein or Alison Redford, no shrinking violets themselves when it came to breathtaking entitlement, the government of Premier Jason Kenney did it with a tweet on a Saturday afternoon after giving the impacted school boards 15 minutes' notice.

Voters of all stripes, including not a few who voted Conservative, were quick to point out that the so-called Canadian Energy Centre Ltd., the war room's legal name under its unsavoury corporate structure designed to keep prying freedom of information requests at bay, was costing $82,000 a day to operate.

For that, Albertans weren't getting much. In the month of March, which ends tomorrow, the war room has published five stories on its website, which if they amount to the entire production of the operation works out to a cost of about half a million dollars each!

By comparison, in the same time frame, this blog has published 31 stories. Alberta Diary, of course, costs the taxpayers of Alberta nothing at all and is, if your blogger may say so himself, considerably more entertaining.

At any rate, with even conservatively minded economists advising the Kenney government to shut the embarrassment down, Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced today that because of the COVID-19 epidemic, the war room has reduced "its current spending to subsistence operations at this time."

That amounts to a cut that if applied on an annual basis would amount to 90 per cent of its operating budget $30 million to $2.84 million -- enough to keep managing director Tom Olsen and the other eight members of the war room's staff from having to suffer the indignity of applying to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal federal government for employment insurance.

The news release tried to make it sound as if this were a decision of the CECL, not the government. "Canadian Energy Centre reduces budget in response to COVID-19," the headline on the news release said. This is nonsense, of course.

"The CEC plans to maintain a reduced budget for a period of three months or until regular operations can recommence," the news release continued. "This includes taking steps to end all paid advertising campaigns, pausing work with outside contractors and ensuring it is well-positioned to resume operations when the time is right."

As for those who hoped common sense might prevail and the war room would be put out of its misery, and ours, Savage, who is also one of the "company's" three corporate directors, vowed that would not be so. "While some would like to capitalize on this unprecedented crisis to permanently shut down Canadian oil and gas, we do not believe we should surrender the global energy market to these opponents," she said in the news release. "The CEC will continue to be required to promote and defend Canadian energy."

The mothballing operation will last for three months, or until the government decides it can get away with starting the war room up again.

Unlike the the savings from the 26,000 school board layoffs, there was no suggestion in the news release war room funds would be redirected to fight the coronavirus. It's not at all clear that the rather vague accounting described in the news release won't still allow considerable amounts of public money to flow through the CECL to projects of interest to the UCP government.

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 his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Sonya Savage/Twitter

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