Jen Gerson: Alberta lost to a bunch of C-list celebrities, shoe-string ENGOs and Neil Young
The Allan inquiry is an incredible admission of incompetence and failure by successive Alberta governments.
By: Jen Gerson
“We have a right to be mad, we have a right to be outraged," said Alberta energy minister Sonya Savage on Thursday after releasing the long-awaited Allan inquiry into the foreign-funding of the anti-oilsands campaigns.
Well, we in Alberta have the right to a lot of things. We have a right to dance as if no one is watching. We have the right to love as if we've never been hurt. And we certainly have the right to be mad — although after skimming through the inquiry itself, someone really ought to be asking whether letting those feelings dictate the government's behaviour was a wise move.
Look, I will give the Allan inquiry more credit than some: I don't think the concept was entirely wasteful. Allan was careful in his language and his documentation, at least in the final public report. Admittedly, I have not yet had time to read the inquiry in full, but I see no references to wild conspiratorial claims that the foreign-funded anti-oilsands campaign was part of some kind of secret nefarious plot to give U.S. fracking or windmills or natural gas projects an unfair advantage. (There are a few references to Agenda 21, I'll note, eyebrow arched.) This was often the subtext behind the demands for the inquiry, one of the chief promises made by now-premier Jason Kenney when he was promising to ride into Alberta and white knight its economic woes. In fact, the inquiry references research into things like assessments of Russian attempts to influence the 2015 U.S. election — attempting to draw a parallel between foreign interference into Canada's oil sector with foreign interference into the U.S. democratic process.
What Allan actually found was — sit down here, folks — a bunch of environmental organizations acquired grants and funding to start multiple public awareness, grassroots, conservation, and litigation campaigns to landlock Alberta's bitumen. Further, some of these organizations received funding from U.S. charities and granting agencies.
In other words, the inquiry spent $3.5 million to fully unpack an environmental movement that had already been widely reported in the media.
Allan wasn't able to come up with a specific number for the amount of foreign funds that went to stopping Alberta's oilsands, but did find $54 million "prescribed for 'anti-Alberta resource development activity'" between 2003-2019. This is only a fraction of foreign funds directed to broader environmental campaigns: total foreign funding of all "Canadian-based environmental initiatives during this period was $1.28 billion.”
It should be noted, here, that most funding for "anti-Alberta resource development activity" came not from Americans, but rather Canadians who were moved to donate because, well, they opposed Alberta’s resource development activity.
Allan also reported that he found no evidence of illegal activity. Environmental activists and organizations did what environmental activists and organizations do. They seek issues to target and then mobilize people and tactics to oppose those targets.
To that end, Savage was partially correct to note that many of these activist organizations have become industries unto themselves, constantly seeking new campaigns and problems to perpetuate their own raison d'etre.
What's left unstated here is the obvious: So what?
The opposition to the oilsands emerged in tandem with the growth of the industry itself.
The campaigns seemed to get a particular boost from Canadians themselves; for example, when we put a giant oilsands truck up for display on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; or when former prime minister Stephen Harper declared Canada would be an "energy superpower."
Some of these tactics seem to have backfired. Instead of painting Canada as innovative, they drew more attention to the extraordinary scale of the oilsands, their relatively high greenhouse gas emissions, and the incredible aesthetic ugliness of the projects. The oilsands, being landlocked and dependent on border crossings, were also strategically vulnerable to exactly the sort of campaigns that the environmentalists were able to exploit. Add rising concern about climate change and bingo bango, you got a movement.
None of this is rocket science. But in the process a lot of Albertans got their feelings hurt and their livelihoods lost and that's worth mentioning, too.
Allan's inquiry isn't a bad thing in and of itself, it just isn't an inquiry. It's a research report. It would be a perfectly capable after-action report, ably summing up how Alberta's oil and gas industry morphed into a global bogeyman of the international environmental movement.
What I do find interesting here is that, bluntly, $54 million isn't a lot of money to oppose a multi-billion dollar industry that supplies billions in resource royalties to the Alberta government every year. The anti-oilsands campaigns felt all-encompassing for those of us who live in Alberta, and I don't think they always played cricket in the way they presented the industry, but in the broader, global scheme of things, these were utterly marginal campaigns.
One of the first grassroots anti-Alberta shots, for example, was Rethink Alberta. That ad is still on YouTube. And how many views has that video racked up over the past 11 years?
A little more than 100,000.
You see this again and again. Alberta's great enemies are, like, amateur-hour websites, or Twitter handles with a few hundred followers. Third-tier ENGOs. C-list celebrities trying for a headline. An op-ed in The Guardian. David Suzuki.
If you want to see Alberta's parochialism on full display, this inquiry puts it out in the shop window. This is a province that lost its mind and launched a quasi-judicial inquiry because the Sierra Club opposed the oilsands.
And yet, by Allan's own admission, these campaigns (when compounded by catastrophic market conditions) worked! Environmental organizations cheered as project after project was delayed or cancelled. Alberta, the wounded victim, was beat low by, uh, Neil Young and Forest Ethics and the Tides Foundation.
An inquiry, a true and useful inquiry, would have done more than simply ask how the anti-oilsands campaign played out. It would have asked what Alberta did wrong in how it responded to that campaign. How did our own actions or inaction contribute to negative public perception? Why did we fail to convince people that we could mine bitumen responsibly?
That's an awkward one to answer, of course, because we know that much of the effort lost steam after Rachel Notley's NDP announced a comprehensive climate change policy and carbon tax after she was elected in 2015.
The Allan inquiry is embarrassing. Not because there's anything wrong with it in and of itself, but rather because the findings suggest that the entire oil and gas industry in a wealthy province was thwarted by a totally predictable series of campaigns launched by a few lesser-known groups with shoe-string budgets. It is, in point of fact, an incredible admission of incompetence and failure by successive Alberta governments.
Unfortunately, the Alberta government is too busy nursing its hurt feelings to have figured that out.
But hey. They have the right to be mad.
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