Alberta inquiry on oil sector under fire for commissioned reports skeptical of climate change

Reports commissioned by a provincial inquiry looking into how critics of Alberta’s oil sector are funded are by and large “textbook examples of climate change denialism,” says an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s faculty of law.

Martin Olszynski posted his submission to the inquiry to the law faculty’s website on Thursday. The posting comes after the inquiry posted an update on its progress earlier this week. The deadline for the inquiry’s final report to be submitted to the provincial government is by the end of the month, though a spokesperson for the inquiry said it may face further delays because of obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Forensic accountant Steve Allan is the commissioner of the $3.5-million inquiry. As part of the inquiry, Allan has commissioned a number of reports about criticism of Alberta’s energy sector. The reports are then reviewed by people or organizations providing submissions if their submissions to the inquiry are approved by the inquiry, like Olszynski’s was.

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“All of them minimize or outright dismiss the reality and seriousness of climate change, even though none of their authors appear to be trained in climate science,” Olszynski wrote in his submission. “These reports are replete with generalizations, speculation, conjecture and even conspiracy.

“The matter of climate change denial is particularly important because it underpins the rest of the narrative in these reports, i.e., that other interests have opposed the oil and gas industry — including Alberta’s — not out of genuine concern for the climate or other environmental impacts but rather for some nefarious — perhaps even Marxist purpose, e.g. that a ‘Transnational Progressive Movement’ has infiltrated governments, the United Nations and large corporations in order to impose material poverty on developed nations.”

READ MORE: Critics question intentions of Kenney’s anti-oil sands inquiry 

On its website, the inquiry says it invited 47 people or organizations to apply for standing as a “participant for commentary” and that 11 people or organizations were granted standing.

The office of Energy Minister Sonya Savage declined to comment when asked about the concerns raised.

When Global News reached out to the inquiry to ask for response to Olszynski’s concerns from Allan, a spokesperson said Allan was unavailable for interview.

However, spokesperson Alan Boras said it was important to note that the inquiry is reviewing reports and contributions from a wide variety of sources beyond the reports that were commissioned.

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“These reports are not by any means the only things that will be reviewed by the inquiry,” he said, adding that reports about human-caused climate change from sources like the United Nations will also be considered.

One of the commissioned reports that Olszynski had questions about was written by Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper and titled “Background Report on Changes in the Organization and Ideology of Philanthropic Foundations with a Focus on Environmental Issues as Reflected in Contemporary Social Science Research.”

“(His) report is replete with generalizations, speculation and conjecture,” Olszynski’s submission reads. “More importantly, however, I have serious reservations as to whether Dr. Cooper was able to provide fair and objective assistance to the inquiry.”

Cooper has long been known for his criticism of people concerned by climate change. He was responsible for research accounts at the University of Calgary that were used to pay expenses for the non-profit Friends of Science, a group that is skeptical about human-caused climate change. The university announced in 2008 that it shut down the accounts over concerns they were used for partisan purposes.

The university told what was then CanWest Global in February 2008 that it shut down.

Another commissioned report Olszynski raised questions about was “Foreign Funding Targeting Canada’s Energy Sector” by the U.S.-based organization Energy in Depth.

“There’s a deep irony in selecting an American industry group to provide a report that looks into foreign funding,” he said.

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“It is problematic that you commissioned three reports, all of which you acknowledge see these issues from a common perspective and you have no reports from an alternative perspective.”

Boras suggested to Global News that concerns raised about whether some of the reports question climate change and the role humans play in it are irrelevant to the inquiry’s mandate.

“The inquiry is not about the status of climate, that’s not in its terms of reference,” he said. “A forensic accounting exercise about foreign funding of policy initiatives by groups in Canada (is).”

Speaking at a news conference in Edmonton on Thursday, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley told reporters she was “shocked” to hear about the reports the inquiry has paid people to produce.

“An agency of this government funded by taxpayer dollars actually wasted those dollars to support and solicit anti-science, climate-denying ridiculousness,” she said. “(It) sends a horrible message to international investors — it undermines our energy industry.

“I think, quite frankly, there should be an inquiry into the inquiry.”

READ MORE: Application to pause Alberta inquiry into funding of oil and gas critics tossed by judge 

Notley called the inquiry a waste of money and called for it to be scrapped as well as for Allan to be fired.

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Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist at the University of Alberta, told Global News he helped Olszynski edit his submission.

“I think it’s just almost mind-boggling that this is the level of analysis and input that Mr. Allan’s inquiry is obtaining,” he told Global News. “None of the reports had the rigour that you would expect.

“It’s just a very strange piece of the process.”

Leach added that it should not be surprising that the development of Alberta’s vast fossil fuel resources is something environmental groups would oppose.

“Alberta happens to be caught in the crosshairs of a legitimate international effort to mitigate the worst effects of climate change,” Olszynski said.

“If climate change isn’t real, then clearly Albertan can feel aggrieved, (or that) they’ve been targeted unfairly…. (punished) for their way of life, for their culture, their values. But if climate change is legitimate, and I suggest that it is, then none of that is true.”

Olszynski used an analogy about the growing body of evidence surrounding climate change being similar to when harmful effects of tobacco use became more and more supported by research.

“It starts slowly with doctors’ groups and patients’ groups and then more science and more support and then the government is (restricting and warning about smoking)… (Then let’s say) there’s a state that happens to grow tobacco and it says, ‘This is all against us.’

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“That’s absurd. Tobacco kills people and the reason people are raising concerns here is because there’s a link between tobacco consumption and disease… death.

“This isn’t about punishing Alberta… It’s proof that most people when faced with evidence of harm or risk will… work to address it.”

Ecojustice Canada, a Canadian non-profit environmental law organization, issued a news release raising its concerns with the commissioned reports.

“The fact Commissioner Steve Allan thought it relevant to commission and consult reports denying the reality of the climate crisis is just another example of how deeply flawed and biased Premier Jason Kenney’s inquiry into so-called ‘anti-Alberta’ campaigns is,” said Devon Page, the organization’s executive director.

“The climate crisis is real. It is caused by human activity and it poses a significant threat to the wellbeing of all Albertans. The Kenney government should be working to address this by reducing emissions and creating green jobs — not spending taxpayers’ time and money on reports that deny the crisis while also pursuing a political witch hunt against the very organizations and individuals who speak out about it.”

Ecojustice has brought on a legal challenge to the inquiry, arguing the Alberta government “brought the inquiry for improper, political purposes and that the proceedings give the perception of bias and unfairness.”

Its case is expected to be heard in court next month.

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READ MORE: Kenney government boosts budget for public inquiry looking at how anti-oil groups are funded, extends report’s deadline 

Last year, the inquiry had its $2.5-million budget boosted by an additional $1 million and was also given an extension.

At the time, Boras said the inquiry had already sifted through “voluminous records of charitable grants, tax filings and public records of organizations” and that over 100 interviews had been conducted with academics, researchers, industry officials, environmentalists, not-for-profit organizations and members of Indigenous communities to gather a variety of views.
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Alberta’s UCP government launched the inquiry in July 2019.

“There’s never been a formal investigation into all aspects of the anti-Alberta energy campaign,” Kenney said at the time.

“The mandate for Commissioner Allan will be to bring together all of the information.”

READ MORE: Kenney government launches inquiry into foreign-funded groups that criticize Alberta’s oil industry 

Kenney pointed to research conducted by Vivian Krause, whose studies have led her to believe the push against the oilsands is funded by American philanthropists in an effort to landlock Alberta oil so it cannot reach overseas markets, where it would attain a higher price per barrel.

At the time, the premier said the inquiry would look broadly at groups that criticize Alberta’s fossil fuel sector but also target groups funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Tides Foundation and the Sea Change Foundation.

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–With files from Global News’ Tom Vernon and Adam MacVicar

Watch below: Some Global News videos about Alberta’s inquiry into how critics of its energy sector are funded.

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