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Energy in Depth's report to Alberta inquiry delivers unpersuasive spin

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Across the street, at left, the building in Washington's lobbyists' quarter a few blocks north of the White House that houses Energy in Depth and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Image: Google Street View

There's nothing outright bonkers about the report by Energy in Depth, the U.S. fossil-fuel advocacy organization paid $64,000 by the "Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns" to come up with justification for the conspiracy theories pushed by the United Conservative Party government during and after the 2019 election campaign.

Sure, Foreign Funding Targeting Canada's Energy Sector is tendentious and needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

The 38-page document relies on common tricks known to all public relations people to give a misleading impression while not actually lying. This is known as spin doctoring.

This is not to say, though, that the Energy in Depth report is not a competent work of industrial propaganda.

On the contrary, it is an excellent example. It would have been a fine model for the Alberta energy war room when it was set up by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. But unlike Canadian Energy Centre Ltd., as the $30-million-per-annum war room is technically known, Energy in Depth appears to be run by people who know what they're doing.

Energy in Depth is bankrolled by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), which represents independent oil and gas drilling companies involved in hydraulic fracking in the United States.

The IPAA and Energy in Depth are very close. They literally operate out of the same suite of offices seven blocks north of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Energy in Depth describes itself as "a research, education and public outreach campaign focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America's onshore energy resource base." It offers "rapid response and a research platform on numerous oil and gas issues."

It invites visitors to its website to hang around and give it a shout if they have questions. "You'll also find studies -- some on jobs, others on safety, and even a few about how the shale 'revolution' in the United States continues to impact energy markets (for the better!) all around the world."

Its work is slick.

But when it reports to Allan that for two decades "wealthy foundations outside of Canada have funnelled money and resources to campaigns that attack the oil industry" and then says in the next paragraph that "the total amount of money going towards anti-fossil-fuel efforts is staggering" and cites a $557-million figure, it's comparing apples and oranges.

That is to say, it's placing a U.S. spending claim adjacent to a Canadian situation and letting readers draw their own, probably inaccurate, conclusions.

When it paints like-minded people working together to stop practices they believe are harmful and dangerous as if they were engaged in a global conspiracy, that's just spin. Most of us would think such activities are not only normal in a democracy, but the duty of good citizens.

When it quotes spectacular numbers of jobs and fabulous sums of tax revenues supposedly lost because of environmental campaigns, that's what Mark Twain called a stretcher. Like inflated promises of economic benefits from dubious, environmentally harmful industrial activities, sensible people view such claims with skepticism.

When it huffily suggests environmental groups' activities are covert and sinister but proclaims fossil-fuel industry campaigns open and transparent because "most of the energy industry's money directed towards advocacy has gone into direct lobbying, which is easily tracked and subject to robust disclosure requirements," that's just hilarious.

And when it tosses in as an unsubstantiated afterthought to the final line of its report that "other investigations, including by the United States Congress, have looked into efforts by Chinese and Russian entities to fund and influence environmental activism targeting North American energy production," that is little more than scary rumour-mongering.

The report's myriad footnotes look positively scholarly. But if readers examine them closely, they will not find much illumination. Many link to garden-variety newspaper clippings proving only that someone, somewhere, talked about the topic at a public meeting.

The document includes a list of short profiles of organizations identified by the authors as "main funders" of the alleged anti-Alberta campaigns the Alberta inquiry purports to be trying to unearth.

The profiles commence with a slightly longer dissertation on the Rockefeller Family's charity funds, outlining the rather modest support they have given to Canadian environmental charities but leaving the impression of something bigger and more sinister. A list of short abstracts on a few environmental organizations and campaigns follows. There's not much real news here.

So why did Commissioner Allen's inquiry pay a cool US$50,000 (about C$64,000) for this pedestrian research?

Any reasonably competent public relations agency could have produced a report like this in a couple of weeks, a month at most. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) certainly could have whipped one up in jig time. Even Canadian Energy Centre Ltd., set up to do such work itself with its own staff researchers, should have been able to oblige.

Of course, by now the Canadian Energy Centre has zero credibility. In fact, its brand would likely damage any campaign associated with it. Likewise, too many Canadians are wise to CAPP. So Allan presumably decided to reach south of the border to an organization with a vague name that the Canadian public might not recognize as part of the oil industry.

But why did this cost so much?

After all, Energy in Depth is bankrolled to provide information like this free to anyone who wants to write about the oil industry or defend it. As part of the propaganda wing of the fossil-fuel industry, its mandate is surely is to produce fact sheets, videos, charts and graphs gratis, on demand.

So why did it cost anything at all?

The simplest explanation is that it was written to order to reach the conclusions desired by Allan's so-called public inquiry, which has been conducted entirely in private.

Energy in Depth, in other words, could be depended upon to save the Kenney government some embarrassment for its discredited conspiracy theories about the Rockefeller funds and others by including among its "key findings" that "wealthy foundations outside of Canada have been the driving source of funding behind these campaigns. Key among these funders are Rockefeller philanthropies."

Given what the inquiry got, we paid too much.

Allan must not have anticipated the document would be available to the public in time to read before his report was released.

The inquiry is supposed to deliver its final report on Monday.

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: Google Street View

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