Sonya Savage becoming Propagandist-in-Chief for Alberta government
The Alberta “energy war room” will soon have a strategic plan, prepared by none other than the captain of Team Energy herself, former Postmedia journalist Claudia Cattaneo. If the Kenney government wanted a heavyweight to design its “fight back strategy,” they don’t come any more pugnacious than Cattaneo.
“This plan will reset the record and loudly tell the world ‘Alberta is back’ – and respond, in real-time, to the misinformation being spread about the industry,” energy minister Sonya Savage said in the press release announcing the appointment. “How will we do this? By challenging. One word at a time, one fact at a time, and one truth at a time. The lies end now.”
The Minister’s press release writer probably didn’t mean to imply that the “lies” are coming from the Alberta government, since those are the only untruths the war room can “end now,” but the aggressive tone of Savage’s remarks raises all sorts of questions, especially for journalists, who are wondering if they will be targeted by the energy warriors.
For instance, what constitutes a lie or a truth?
Several years ago, I wrote a couple of columns accusing Cattaneo of getting facts wrong while she was the Western Business Columnist at the National Post, a job she retired from in May, 2018.
I pointed out that she misunderstood the Notley government’s 100 megatonne per year oil sands emissions cap, which the veteran business writer (her journalism career spanned four decades and included stints at major Canadian newspapers) claimed the producers would blow through in 10 years. She neglected to mention that producers were investing hundreds of millions to reduce emissions and lower the carbon-intensity of their heavy crude oil. The goal of industry and government was to raise production while keeping total oil sands emissions from rising at all.
This was not a minor error. Nor did the cap actually originate with the NDP government.
The cap was part of a handshake agreement between five oil sands CEOs and the executive directors of five environment groups after months of intense discussions that began in the fall of 2014 and continue through the summer of the following year. The parties introduced the idea to then environment minister Shannon Phillips in September and it was incorporated into the Climate Leadership Plan released in November.
Now, imagine the energy war room existed in 2017. Does it immediately take to social media to refute Catteneo’s misrepresentation of the emissions cap? Would the government’s energy warriors understand the intricacies of the emissions cap and its provenance? What happens if the war room vigorously refutes her opinion piece but in the process runs afoul of the oil sands CEOs, who were the authors of the cap in the first place?
One can imagine endless variations of this problem.
The oil, natural gas, and pipeline sectors are technically complex and there are often no black and white positions, no easy answers that can be fired off in “real-time,” Savage would have Albertans believe.
For instance, what about the claim by anti-oil sands activists that bitumen is “dirty,” by which they mean that it has a much higher carbon-intensity compared to lighter grades of crude oil.
Economist Kevin Birn of IHS MarkIt released an exhaustive study last fall that showed how increasing efficiencies in oil sands production were bringing down sector-wide emissions and further reductions were expected by 2030, but there was a huge variations between facilities. Newer plants with the latest technology extracted oil with the carbon-intensity of the average US crude, while older facilities were much “dirtier” and cleaning them up might not be possible; or, at the very least, would be costly.
How will the energy warriors capture that complexity in a tweet? If they can’t do it justice, and only trade in simple talking points like their opponents, how does that benefit Alberta? Competing propaganda campaigns hardly seems like an effective strategy to make Canadians love Alberta oil and gas.
Why create another propaganda machine in the first place? The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) already has the Energy Citizen social media campaign and there are several aggressive industry astroturf organizations, such as Calgary realtor Cody Battershill’s Canada Action booster group.
Cattaneo is whip-smart and knows the oil and gas industry backward and forward, if anyone can throw together a strategic plan in a few months, she can. But will she give her political masters what they want? What Premier Jason Kenney and his backers in CAPP – the small oil and gas producers, the services sector, investment bankers – really want is a club to very publicly bludgeon the “foreign-funded activists” they have declared war on.
They will almost certainly get more than they bargained for.
Savage claimed in her release that “reporting the truth about the energy industry was at the centre of Claudia’s distinguished career,” which was mostly true, except when it wasn’t, as I pointed out in my columns.
That paradox – hiring a truth-teller who didn’t always get the truth right – is a big reason why the “energy war room” will be an unmitigated disaster.