In prelude to war room, Alberta’s energy minister targets media outlets

When the United Conservative Party was elected, its leader, Jason Kenney, promised to establish a war room in order to fight against what it called misinformation directed at Alberta’s oil and gas sector.

Although not yet formally established, some of its first targets appear to be the media. 

In letters sent to Politico and National Geographic, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage pressed the government view of the industry. 

In both letters, she said one of her priorities is to correct misinformation, although it’s unclear what she felt was inaccurate in the Politico piece.

It’s a preview of what could be expected from the war room, which has a budget of $30 million but which Savage said would be bolstered by energy industry spending.

“You have to realize that the companies in the energy sector are doing their part, too,” she said Wednesday from the Global Petroleum Show in Calgary. “This is a collaborative effort. They’ll be having ad campaigns and doing their part.”

National Geographic gets biggest rebuke

National Geographic received the biggest rebuke for what Savage deemed inaccuracies in an article it published on Alberta’s oilsands in April, which was headlined “This is the world’s most destructive oil operation — and it’s growing.” The magazine has since amended a correction of sorts, with an editor’s note that reads: “This story has been updated to include new information and more complete responses from the oilsands industry.”

An original version of the article, which has since been changed, listed “175-odd” oilsands mining operations in one glaring error.

As Savage points out in her letter, it’s a “far cry” from the actual number of oilsands mining projects currently operating in Alberta  — only seven, according to the energy minister. 

Vast swaths of the province’s oilsands are too deep for open-pit mining, which uses massive shovels to scrape the sand from the earth’s surface for processing and produces tailing ponds. 

Instead, most projects use “in situ” (Latin for “in place”) production, drilling deep into the earth and using high-pressure steam or chemical solvents to release bitumen and pipe it to the surface. In-situ extraction doesn’t produce tailing ponds and has a much smaller surface footprint than mining, but uses considerable amounts of energy and water.

The opening of the article implied about 800 kilometres of oilsands development lined the highway in northern Alberta: “Imagine driving on a highway and to either side behind a thin screen of trees is a vast industrial landscape as far as the eye can see. Now imagine 500 miles of that highway.”

In fact, as critics pointed out, the highway all the way from Edmonton to the northernmost oilsands project, Fort Hills, measures less than 350 miles — slightly more than 550 km — and most of that roadway is lined by boreal forest, with the actual oilsands mining concentrated in a short stretch north of Fort McMurray.

There was no comment from industry or government in the original article.

Savage called out the publication for getting it so wrong and for leaving that information on its website for three weeks before it was corrected or clarified. 

“This is unacceptable, and especially so for a publication of National Geographic’s stature,” she wrote to editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg in a letter posted to an Alberta government website. 

However, the majority of her letter is more about providing context from an industry and government slant, rather than a wholesale correction of the material as posted.

Letter from the minister

Savage argues Alberta produces “some of the world’s cleanest oil” and points to benefits for First Nations, as opposed to simple opposition. 

The minister also says that companies are required to have reclamation plans in place for projects, although cleanup of those sites is a serious and ongoing concern. 

According to the Pembina Institute, only seven per cent of land disturbed by oilsands operations since 1967 has been reclaimed, and of that, only 0.1 per cent has been reclaimed and returned to the province. 

Savage also highlights the work that has been done to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced by each barrel of oil from the oilsands — down 20 per cent — although total emissions continue to rise with increased production. 

National Geographic did not immediately return a request for comment and said inquiries had been passed to its publicist. 

Politico Pro Canada

Savage’s response to Politico was shorter, in concert with the fact it was directed at a short blurb in a newsletter. She only sought to make the case that the United States needs and will continue to need oil from the province. 

It was more sales pitch than anything resembling a correction. It doesn’t appear to take issue with anything that was written.

Jason Kenney with energy “stakeholders” in Calgary as he talked about the war room during a news conference last Friday. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The blurb in question in the Politico Pro Canada newsletter is a quote of former U.S. ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman that reads: “‘The bigger question that needs to be asked is, do we even need that oil now?’ he said, noting the U.S.’s ample oil reserves, which have grown in the past decade. ‘I’m not sure that it makes as much sense as it may have historically,'” he added.

It’s part of a larger blurb dealing with the ongoing issues of building Keystone XL.

U.S. production surging 

Alberta’s energy minister felt that was enough to pen a letter to editor Alexander Panetta extolling the virtues of Alberta’s industry and the need for reliable oil exports for the U.S. 

Savage says that while crude oil production in the U.S. is indeed surging, it still requires vast amounts of imports to deal with the level of its energy consumption and that refineries in the U.S. require heavy crude, not the lighter oil produced in the States. 

“What I find fascinating about this debate is how they can haggle about a common set of numbers,” Panetta wrote in an email to CBC News with a link to the U.S. Energy and Information Administration showing soaring production south of the border. 

Death threats against activist

The war room, however, isn’t just about writing letters. The government has said it will fight in the courts against environmental organizations and call an inquiry into those organizations receiving funding from outside Canada.

The rhetoric could already be having an unintended impact.  

The letters were released on the same day that Tzeporah Berman, an environmental activist who was selected to sit on an Alberta government advisory committee by the previous NDP government, said she has been receiving death threats. 

The threats, she says, started on Friday after Kenney held a press conference to talk about developments in the war room plan. During that event, Berman’s photo and resume were held up. 

“When someone in a position of leadership says, ‘This is the enemy, attack this person’ and creates that sense of, really, fearmongering and hate, people attack because they’re scared,” she said on Tuesday. 

“I understand that because this is a difficult time of change, but what Premier Kenney is doing is not leadership, it’s bullying.”

Questioning government’s approach

Kenney has argued that a more aggressive approach is required to support Alberta’s oil and gas industry because “keeping your head down” hasn’t worked.

But political scientist Laurie Adkin from the University of Alberta in Edmonton says that’s not an accurate representation of what’s been happening. 

“It’s not true that the energy industry has kept its head down,” she said on Alberta@Noon on Wednesday. “It has, in fact, been aggressively campaigning and lobbying for its interest for decades.”

Adkin questions why governments — including the previous NDP government, which spent $31 million promoting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion — should be spending money defending an industry with plenty of money in its pockets.

“I think the actual balance of power here has been kind of inverted in the way the issue is being presented to the public,” said Adkin.

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