Alberta's "energy war room" was a year old yesterday and while the cash lavished on the self-described purveyor of a "fact-based narrative about Canadian energy" isn't the worst investment ever made, or even the worst investment made by the Kenney government, its return on investment is nothing to write home about.
Touted as the mighty voice of Alberta’' beleaguered oil industry and technically known as Canadian Energy Centre Ltd., the war room stumbled out of the starting gate on December 11, 2019, and has been little more than an embarrassment since.
Despite having Premier Jason Kenney and Energy Minister Sonya Savage on hand for the ceremonial first news conference in Calgary, anyone who expected CEC Ltd. to launch devastating attacks on environmentalists and other "enemies of Alberta" has either been disappointed or relieved by the war room's underwhelming performance.
So much for Mr. Kenney's boastful vow that CEC Ltd. meant Albertans "refuse to sit here and be a punching bag anymore."
Really, about all CEC Ltd. has delivered is a mediocre website full of dull puff pieces about the wonderful things done by Alberta's energy industry. (Petroleum products are used to make medical equipment! And rubber duckies! Who knew?)
Even fossil fuel industry flacks, for whom the effort is in effect an undeclared subsidy, must quietly roll their eyes at the CEC's lame effort.
So there was considerable amusement in Alberta political circles yesterday when the national broadcaster posted an anniversary story on its website quoting CEC CEO Tom Olsen complaining that nobody understands his war room.
Apparently the war room's "punchy communications experts," as Ms. Savage once called them, are having trouble explaining what they do!
"There's not a huge knowledge of what we do and how we do it and how we benefit the world," the former Calgary Herald assistant city editor, former spokesperson for Progressive Conservative premier Ed Stelmach, and unsuccessful United Conservative Party candidate, told the CBC's reporter.
Actually, that misstates CEC Ltd.'s image problem somewhat.
In reality, from the Kenney government's perspective, too many people in this province understand perfectly well what the war room does. Which is to say, not much.
It's a boondoggle that has fumbled its mission almost every step of the way.
It purloined someone else's logo. Busted, it did it again! A writer didn't bother telling a chef being interviewed in environmentally sensitive Vancouver that the story would appear on a government website touting the oil industry. It preposterously suggested in a quickly deleted tweet that the New York Times was guilty of anti-Semitism.
Mr. Olsen even mistakenly called the organization a Crown corporation in his debut post to the CEC's website's blog. (It is in fact a provincial corporation sneakily set up to evade accountability under Alberta's Freedom of Information and Privacy legislation, with three UCP cabinet ministers as directors.)
As for how it benefits the world, well, the answer's much the same: Not much.
If the war room started out as a colossal boondoggle, though, it is presumably somewhat less of one now. Last March, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government said in a news release it was cutting the operation's budget by 90 per cent, from $30 million to $2.84 million.
That tells you right there what the government likely really thinks of the efforts of the war room. Certainly no one has noticed much difference in its output. Where the rest of the money went is not clear.
So why does it survive? Probably because it's less embarrassing to let it hang around quietly producing stories no one reads about how China's a worse polluter than Alberta and how we're letting Russia take our lunch money. Ask me again next December if it's still around.
Mr. Olsen insists it will be. "While opponents bash Canada's responsible, innovative, world leading energy sector, we're just getting started on setting the record straight," he vowed in a story published Thursday on the CEC Ltd. website.
Heaven knows, with pension funds dropping fossil fuel stocks hither and yon, electric car sales soaring, and a new U.S. president with a considerably greener agenda than the last one, there should be plenty for Mr. Olsen to write about for his $195,000 annual salary.
Meanwhile, the other part of Premier Kenney's plan to make oil great again, Commissioner Steve Allan's "public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns," apparently continues far from the prying eyes of the public.
I say apparently because we barely hear from Mr. Allan any more. He occasionally sticks his head up like a gopher, asks for another extension, and pops back into his hole.
After two extensions and some extra cash, this time the inquiry is supposed to report on January 31, 2021. It's possible. But don't hold your breath.
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.
Image: Jason Kenney/Twitter
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