Energy war room gets a new name, can it get a new mandate, too?

An artist's rendering of what the Alberta Energy War Room...oops, Canadian Energy Centre, may look like.

New energy narratives that reposition Alberta’s oil and gas sector in the Canadian energy conversation would be more helpful than more propaganda

The Energy War Room at least had some panache, a bit of attitude. The Canadian Energy Centre? It’s like vanilla ice cream on vanilla cake. If the Kenney government is changing the name, however, any chance the mandate can be tweaked, too? Defending the status quo is a waste of time and resources. Developing new energy narratives that realign Alberta with the energy transition and climate crisis, however, could be invaluable to positioning the province to prosper in a changing world.

Tom Olsen, UCP candidate in the 2019 election. Source: Calgary Herald.

“Once operational, the centre will take a fact-based approach to counteracting the misinformation about our industry,” Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in a release Wednesday. “It will collaborate with industry, academia, Indigenous peoples and others to tell the truth: that Alberta energy is responsibly produced and indispensable – to Canada and the world.”

Failed UCP candidate and former Calgary Herald opinion columnist Tom Olsen, his thick mop of prematurely grey hair fitting nicely with the bland theme, was named the managing director. He and his merry band of truth warriors will be responsible for the Centre’s three functions.

The rapid response unit will swiftly answer “misinformation spread through social and traditional media,” a role that is fraught with potential problems. Consider this hypothetical situation.

Energi Media is working on a deep dive testing claims by industry and the Kenney government that Alberta oil and gas is produced to the highest ethical and environmental standards in the world. Several scientists and experts have been interviewed who threw serious doubt on the claim and provided evidence to back up their concerns.

If Olsen fires off a tweet correcting the “misinformation,” how will he know Energi Media‘s report is untrue or misleading? Will he rely upon industry groups for the “correct information”? How will he know that information accurate? Green Party leader Elizabeth May yesterday accused the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers of setting up “a front organization called Energy Citizen to spread false and misleading information about climate change and the support the fossil fuel industry receives from government.”

Economist Andrew Leach’s Oct. 10 Tweet thread raises other concerns about the Canadian Energy Centre.

What happens if Olsen and Energi Media engage in a tweet spat and the part-time country singer turns out to be wrong? How will that improve Alberta’s image in other provinces?

The Centre’s other two units present similar potential problems.

The data and research unit will be “in charge of centralizing and analyzing data to reinforce this story with factual evidence for investors, researchers and policymakers.” Don’t the Alberta Energy Regulator and the Department of Energy, helped out by Statistics Canada, already provide all the “factual evidence” required? It’s hard to imagine what the rebranded war room would add that isn’t already provided by these experienced and credible groups.

The energy literacy unit will “create original content to elevate the general understanding of Alberta’s energy sector.” Isn’t this the role of CAPP’s Energy Citizens campaign? How will they differ?

More importantly, do Canadians want to know more about energy? Industry types have long held that if Canadians had a deeper understanding they would be more supportive. Unfortunately, there appears to be little data to back up that view.

All in all, the energy war room aka the Canadian Energy Centre appears to be little more than a $30 million (the amount Kenney promised to spend during the campaign) propaganda exercise.

The Centre is scheduled to be in business before Christmas, so let me offer a bit of advice for Olsen to consider over the next few months: the problem isn’t information, it’s narrative.

“Humans are mean-making animals,” Professor Clive Barlow of St. Thomas University told Energi News in an interview, and they create meaning by telling stories that are then woven into larger narratives to make sense of complex issues. Like energy.

Kenney’s use of energy narrative during the Alberta election was brilliant. But that narrative, based on foreign-funded activists and the Notley-Trudeau alliance and a host of other anti-energy hobgoblins, was designed for Alberta voters. It was populist, abrasive, and contained more than its fair share of lies and misinformation, which isn’t likely to go over well in the rest of Canada.

And, as I argued in my October 5 column, Alberta is out of step with the rest of the world, misaligned with the two great global energy trends, the transition away from fossil fuels and the climate crisis. Political and industry leaders have convinced themselves that they can bend Canadians to their will.

If only enough conservative governments are elected. If only Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party of Canada defeat the hated Justin Trudeau and the Liberals at the ballot box on October 21. If all the stars line up just right, Alberta can grasp enough control of the political levers to force Canada to abandon carbon taxes and clean fuel standards and opposition to pipelines and finally, utterly capitulate to the truth as Jason Kenney has revealed it and as disseminated by the Canadian Energy Centre.

This strategy will fail.

Why? Because it ignores that the energy transition is driven not by policy, which can be changed by new governments, but by technology change, capital investment, markets, science and R&D, and all the other processes large and small that are transforming the global energy system. Electricity is a cleaner, cheaper fuel and the technologies that turn electricity into work are, by and large, more efficient.

The Kenney energy narrative also ignores that climate change is real and international governments are doing something about it, President Donald Trump and the Republican Party be damned. Recent opinion polls show Canadians want serious climate action and vigorous climate policy.

So, if Tom Olsen wants the Canadian Energy Centre to contribute something useful to Alberta, and his bosses in government, he should come up with new energy narratives that shows Alberta and its oil and gas sector are pivoting to the onrushing low-carbon future. Not being dragged kicking and screaming, but actively realigning with the majority of Canadians and the rest of the world.

New narratives, not propaganda, are what Alberta really needs.

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