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Alberta’s ‘war room’ is back with massive ad spend revealed in annual report

New documents outline a massive increase in public funding for the Canadian Energy Centre’s campaign to change attitudes toward Alberta’s oil and gas.

New documents outline a massive increase in public funding for the Canadian Energy Centre’s campaign to change attitudes toward Alberta’s oil and gas.

An agency founded by Alberta’s United Conservative government to fight what it calls misinformation about the province’s industry and otherwise known as the “war room,” the centre’s most recent annual report shows it signed a $22-million contract last fiscal year for a media campaign. That’s about three times its entire government grant from the previous year.

“There’s a lot of things the government could do with that money,” said Opposition New Democrat energy critic Kathleen Ganley.

The spending is mentioned only in the line item “RFP — Agency of Record” in the centre’s annual report, filed late last month.

The ad campaign was to take place in the U.S., Europe and the United Kingdom and Canada. Little information is available on how the money was spent or what results it generated. It’s not clear which campaigns are still in progress.

Most of what information exists comes from documents filed with the U.S. Foreign Agent Registry. Those documents are detailed and specific. They show, for example, Alberta spent $159,593.51 on ads in the Wall Street Journal.

They also include contracts signed between the Alberta government and DDB, a marketing and communication company with offices in Edmonton and Washington.

The contract indicates that Alberta spent $1.7 million out of a budget of $3.8 million trying to convince Americans that fossil fuels aren’t going anywhere and the province’s industry is a well-regulated and safe supplier.

“Experts agree that even with the most aggressive push for renewable energy the transition to a low-carbon economy is decades away,” says one ad. “When America chooses Canadian oil, it helps provide reliable, responsible, and affordable energy that is committed to environmental excellence.”

The U.S. spending included US$150,000 for “rapid response media criticism.”

The contract between Alberta and DDB stipulates ad spending in Europe and the United Kingdom. In the centre’s report, that spending is budgeted at C$5.7 million. The contract also spells out $22 million for campaigns within Canada, although no further information about where and how that money was spent is included.

The most recent version of the contract in the U.S. registry suggests it expired July 31.

Officials with the energy centre did not immediately respond to a request for comment and an explication of the centre’s media spending. Alberta Energy, whose minister Brian Jean is chairman of the centre’s board, responded with an email quoted here in full:

“A variety of advertisers on a variety of campaigns,” wrote spokesman James Snell. “The lead advertising agency was DDB.”

The government’s contract requires DDB to file a report outlining the actions it took and how they affected U.S. public opinion. The Canadian Press has not been told if that report has been filed or if it will become public.

The contract restricts DDB from speaking to media without the centre’s approval. Structured as a wholly owned Crown corporation, the centre is not subject to Alberta’s freedom of information laws.

“Albertans shouldn’t have to rely on other jurisdictions to tell them what their government is doing,” said Ganley. “Other jurisdictions have better public transparency records and rules than this current UCP government.”

Ganley said $22 million could have made a real difference spent elsewhere.

“Twenty-two million dollars could be game-changing in some areas — for instance, hiring back educational assistants that this government fired.”

The United Conservatives established the centre in 2019 to promote the energy industry and fire back against what it deems misinformation. It has since criticized the New York Times newspaper and scolded the makers of a children’s film featuring Bigfoot for what it felt was an anti-oil message.

In March 2020, the agency lost about 90 per cent of its $30-million budget, which comes largely from the government’s carbon levy. In a news release, the government said all paid advertising campaigns and work with outside contractors would stop.