Varcoe: $3.5M inquiry finds no wrongdoing in foreign funding of anti-Alberta energy campaigns

Here’s what we learned Thursday with the long-awaited release of the provincial Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns.

Environmental groups in Canada sometimes receive money originating from other countries.

Some funds have gone toward campaigns to fight oil and gas developments in Alberta. These groups often work together.

And none of this is illegal.

The 650-page report released Thursday wasn’t able to “trace with precision” the amount of foreign money that came across the border to stymie the sector, although it’s at least $54 million over a 16-year period.

While anti-energy campaigns had a hand in cancelling some projects, the inquiry wasn’t able to say these efforts alone derailed specific developments, noting market forces — hello, oil prices — were also at play.

It also wasn’t able to determine the precise economic loss of such initiatives, but noted the consequences “cannot be ignored.”

However, it was sure of a couple of things.

“In no way does participating in an anti-Alberta energy campaign indicate that an organization has acted in a manner that is illegal, improper or otherwise impugnable, nor does it mean the organization is ‘against Alberta’ in some manner,” wrote inquiry commissioner Steve Allan.

“To be very clear, I have not found any suggestions of wrongdoing on the part of any individual or organization. No individual or organization, in my view, has done anything illegal. Indeed, they have exercised their rights of free speech.”

So that’s what we found out in an inquiry that cost up to $3.5 million to conduct — as much as $1 million over its initial budget — and arrived one year behind deadline?

Critics will conclude this entire inquiry was a waste of time, but Energy Minister Sonya Savage, whose government commissioned the report in 2019 after promising it on the campaign trail that year, believes it’s money well spent.

“It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money it found came across the border to target our domestic policy,” Savage said in an interview.

“It’s worth it 10 times over, it’s well worth it. I think it’s important to have this history documented on what happened.”

And what happened?

Foreign money from international foundations flowed into environmental organizations and other groups to battle against oilsands developments and pipelines — such as Keystone XL — issues previously highlighted by researcher Vivian Krause.

The report points out Canadian charities aren’t restricted from receiving foreign funding, provided the cash is used for charitable purposes and campaigns.

The study identified an array of grassroots efforts, divestment campaigns, environmental litigation and political activism, showing the depth of opposition facing the industry.

Pipe intended for the Keystone XL pipeline project sit in North Dakota.
Pipe intended for the Keystone XL pipeline project sit in North Dakota. Photo by Alex Panetta/The Canadian Press files

The inquiry did not hold public hearings, but conducted more than 100 interviews and hired Deloitte Forensic to review foreign funding.

Deloitte found foreign money reported by Canadian charities for environmental initiatives reached $925 million in a 16-year period ending in 2019. Another $352 million of funding for “Canadian-based environmental initiatives” remained in the U.S.

Of the total $1.28 billion, based on what it called “word search criteria,” grants totalling $54 million were specifically directed to what the report terms “anti-Alberta resource development activity.” However, it cautioned this likely significantly understates the final amount.

The sum of foreign money flowing into Canada “has the potential to influence matters of public interest to Albertans and Canadians,” the report states.

Allan pointed out he didn’t issue any finding “as to whether an organization has disseminated false or misleading information”; it wasn’t required by the inquiry’s terms of reference.

He found many environmental non-governmental organizations work in concert with each other and are driven by honest climate concerns. “However, like any business, (they) are also focused on their own financial sustainability.”

None of this should come as a surprise.

Steve Allan, commissioner of the UCP’s anti-Alberta energy inquiry.
Steve Allan, commissioner of the UCP’s anti-Alberta energy inquiry. Photo by Jim Wells /Postmedia, file

But Savage said campaigns to land-lock oil and gas resources cost Albertans jobs and damaged provincial revenues.

“It doesn’t bother me at all that it was found that there was nothing illegal,” she said.

“We should still be concerned because there was a lot of foreign funding that came across the border to impact domestic policy.”

However, University of Alberta energy and environmental economist Andrew Leach said the province has shifted the goalposts from when it began the inquiry.

“When they launched this, it was about calling out misinformation, it was about flagging illegal activities and coming up with legal responses,” Leach said.

“In the final report, you basically have a summary of disclosures made publicly . . . I thought it was pretty sad, altogether.”

He noted the Kenney government laments foreign funding trying to influence domestic policy, but Alberta’s war room has put up billboards in New York to promote Canadian energy.

The report made six recommendations, which Savage said the government will support.

It recommends more transparency and accountability from non-profits and charitable organizations, although she acknowledged most of the regulatory oversight rests with Ottawa.

The report suggests creating an opportunity for dialogue with First Nations communities focusing on economic development, and that Alberta undertake a science and innovation initiative to lead the charge in producing low-cost, low-carbon energy.

It suggests Alberta support the collection of timely, reliable greenhouse gas emissions data. Allan also recommends building a national resource development strategy and rebranding Canadian energy.

“We have to do a better job of communicating with Canadians about what we do,” said Mark Scholz, head of the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors.

In a statement, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers CEO Tim McMillan said the report “brings to light the highly co-ordinated, well-funded and international nature of these campaigns, which have played a part in cancelling billions of dollars in resource projects and thousands of jobs for Albertans.”

Pembina Institute executive director Simon Dyer welcomed the conclusion that there was no wrongdoing and said the premise for the inquiry was “fully discredited.”

Financial information from environmental groups is already available through the Canada Revenue Agency “or a Google search,” he said.

“I don’t see any value in it. I’d actually say the reputational damage is orders of magnitude larger than the actual cost of doing this work. It makes Alberta look out of touch,” Dyer added.

Reached Thursday, Krause was pleased to see the report’s release but thought more financial information could have been included. She said Allan should have looked further into foreign groups working in a co-ordinated fashion to harm a Canadian industry.

“It’s better than nothing,” she added. “I am grateful he told part of the story and let’s just move on.”

For the Kenney government, I suspect that’s exactly what it’s hoping for as well.

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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