Law rules

Alberta energy war room shielded from Freedom of Information Act, arbiter of rules

An arbitrator’s decision means the public won’t have access to information about what’s going on inside the Alberta government-funded oil and gas war room.

In a decision released Monday, arbitrator Catherine Tully said the Canadian Energy Center is not subject to provincial freedom of information legislation.

The legislature did not designate the government-created corporation as a “public body,” groups that are obligated to respond to freedom of information (FOI) requests, Tully said.

The decision came as a disappointment, but not a surprise, for Sean Holman, a professor of environmental and climate journalism at the University of Victoria and an expert on freedom of information.

“He is engaged in activity that is of great public interest,” Holman said of the center Monday. “Government propaganda from the oil and gas industry is something voters should be entitled to know about.”

Canadian Energy Center (CEC) CEO Tom Olsen said in an email that his organization is subject to “vigorous annual audits” by the province’s auditor general.

“CEC will continue to proudly champion responsibly developed Canadian energy and the benefits it brings to Canada, North America and the world,” said Olsen.

Although the United Conservative Party government established the CEC as a private company, the Minister of Energy is the sole voting shareholder. Its board of directors is made up of three ministers from the Alberta government. The CEC is funded by Alberta’s industrial carbon tax, the Technology, Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) fund.

When the government incorporated the CEC in late 2019, ministers said it should not be subject to access to information requests, to prevent information from falling into the hands of those who seek to denigrate Alberta oil and gas.

In May 2021, CBC reporter Jennie Russell filed a freedom of information request with the CEC, seeking information about the contracts she had awarded.

The center said it was not subject to the process and referred it to the government’s Department of Energy.

Russell appealed to Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, who appointed an outside arbitrator to hear the matter.

She argued that the CEC should be considered a public body, given provincial control and oversight. The CEC and the Ministry of Energy disagreed.

Tully said the legislature could have designated the CEC as a public body, but it did not, and the privacy commissioner must respect that.

The Department of Energy’s annual report for 2020-21 says the department “includes” CEC, among other entities, such as the Alberta Energy Regulator.

But Tully said the CEC also does not qualify as an office or branch of government.

Holman said the operations of the CEC, including how it uses information and spends money and the advice it seeks, are matters of public concern.

“We’re not just talking about a run-of-the-mill government operation here,” he said. “What we’re talking about is a spin center on behalf of the most controversial industry in the world today.”

Critics have mocked some of the CEC’s weaknesses, including stealing its initial logo design, requiring writers to identify themselves to sources as journalists, and carrying out a campaign against the film. entertainment for children, Bigfoot familywhich revolves around a fictional oil operation in Alaska.

Academics have accused him of misrepresenting publicly available data.

The government initially budgeted $30 million per year for the CEC. This was reduced to around $4 million in 2020 when the pandemic hit. The proposed budget for 2022-23 does not include a line item for the CEC, but Energy Minister Sonya Savage told the Legislature on Monday it will have about $12 million a year.

The decision was made by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, an independent body that reports directly to the Alberta Legislative Assembly.