Braid: Threat of huge federal fines pushes 'War Room' into UCP government fold

The main reason is federal Bill C-59, which has passed third reading in the House of Commons and is now before the Senate

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The troops in Alberta’s War Room have been limping around wounded for many months.

Now they are being demobilized and posted under a new general — Premier Danielle Smith herself.

Something like this was long expected for the contentious agency, but why now?

The main reason is federal Bill C-59, which has passed third reading in the House of Commons and is now before the Senate.

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The UCP suddenly realized that the War Room is a sitting duck for huge penalties under this legislation.

“We’re in a time where the federal government is attempting to make the promotion of Alberta’s energy industry illegal with Bill C-59, and a proposed emissions cap that would cripple Canada’s largest industry employing hundreds of thousands of Canadians,” Smith said in a statement.

The remnants of the War Room will be tucked safely under her wing as part of the Intergovernmental Relations department. She’s the minister. Presumably, the changes will shield kind words about oil and gas from federal prosecution.

Tom Olsen, War Room boss, will leave after helping wind it down.

“I know Premier Smith and her government are deeply committed to the energy file,” he said in a statement. “I’m confident the good work will continue under the group that’s moving over to Intergovernmental Relations.”

Olsen also said he would exit with a three-month retirement allowance, as per his contract.

A few researchers and writers will migrate to Intergovernmental Relations.

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Bill C-59 is appallingly undemocratic and an affront to free speech. It imposes huge penalties on companies and entities that praise environmental and climate improvements in the industry.

Fines can be up to $10 million for a first “offence,” or three times the benefit from the “deception.” Second convictions could cost $15 million.

Pumping out favourable articles about oil and gas is pretty much all the War Room does all day long.

It once had a $30-million government budget for the task. The website is still packed with friendly articles on projects and CO2 emission reductions.

Under the federal bill, industry will have to prove their claims are correct. The onus is on them, not the complainant.

Guilt is measured against some vague “internationally recognized methodology.”

The kangaroo court will be the Competition Bureau, whose chief is delighted with these measures. Complaints will get a friendly welcome.

The mere existence of this system will put a chilling effect on any self-promotion from the industry, even when it’s fully justified.

The key amendments came from NDP member Charlie Angus, who would also like to see oil CEOs jailed for advertising he doesn’t like.

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Of course, no parallel federal agency requires critics of the energy industry to tell some facsimile of the truth.

Bill C-59 could well violate Charter rights of free speech, but that would take legal challenges and months or years to establish.

MP Charlie Angus
NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay Charlie Angus rises during Question Period, Friday, December 1, 2023 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The War Room has been unpopular and widely derided almost from the start in 2019, even in Alberta.

Technically the Canadian Energy Centre, the War Room was set up as a kind of quasi-private agency.

It promoted the industry through farce and folly. It once launched an attack on a Bigfoot cartoon movie that painted oil companies as villains. It went after the New York Times.

Ultimately, the War Room was doomed by its own exuberance, the government’s efforts to shield it from scrutiny and damaging findings from Alberta’s auditor general in 2020.

In 2020 the auditor scorched this outfit for spewing out contracts that didn’t meet standards for sole-sourcing and potential conflict of interest.

Ex-premier Jason Kenney launched this project in May 2018, when he pledged a War Room to champion the industry at the UCP’s founding meeting.

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The crowd of 3,000 went nuts when he uttered the words. The tag stuck.

Jason Kenney at the launch of the Canadian Energy Centre, or war room
Then-Alberta premier Jason Kenney speaks at the official launch of the Canadian Energy Centre on Dec. 11, 2019. Photo by Gavin Young /Postmedia

Kenney also created a public inquiry into foreign money in anti-oil agitation.

That backfired, too. Commissioner Steve Allan found nothing illegal about foreign activity, and also had harsh words for the War Room.

“The Canadian Energy Centre has come under almost universal criticism,” he wrote. “It may well be that the reputation of this entity has been damaged beyond repair.”

True enough, but the War Room is only a skirmish in a much larger battle to completely silence the energy industry. Although it has often been flawed, in recent times many of the articles have been well-researched and accurate.

Certainly, nothing about Kenney’s odd creation justifies an unfair, authoritarian and probably illegal federal bill.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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