An oil and gas pumpjack is shown near Cremona, Alta., on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. An environmental law charity is asking a judge to shut down Alberta's inquiry into the purported foreign funding of anti-oil environmental campaigns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

‘Political gunfight:’ Environmental law group challenges Alberta oil inquiry in court

CALGARY — An environmental charity is arguing an inquiry into alleged foreign-led campaigns targeting the oil and gas sector set out to label green groups as anti-Alberta and disrupt their funding before hearing any evidence — accusations government lawyers say are without merit.

Ecojustice is asking a Calgary judge to shut down the inquiry, arguing it’s part of a “fight-back” strategy the United Conservatives touted during the 2019 election campaign and was formed for an improper purpose.

“This is a political gunfight intended to target, intimidate and harm organizations that hold views that differ from those of the government,” lawyer Barry Robinson told Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Karen Horner by video conference Thursday.

Public inquiries are meant to investigate tragedies or “worrisome matters of public concern,” and the inquiry headed by forensic accountant Steve Allan does neither, Robinson argued.

But government lawyer Doreen Mueller told court it “addresses a matter of public concern relevant to the efficient and responsible development of Alberta’s natural resources.”

Mueller added that a “fair and common sense” reading of the order-in-council that formed the inquiry does not support the conclusion that it is meant to target any specific people or groups.

“The commissioner has no power to take away rights, impose sanctions or otherwise punish a subject of the inquiry.”

Ecojustice also argues there is a reasonable apprehension that the inquiry is biased.

When the inquiry was announced in July 2019, Premier Jason Kenney stated Alberta had been the target of a “propaganda campaign to defame the energy industry and landlock Alberta’s resources” and that it was funded by “certain U.S. foundations,” Robinson told court.

“These are all stated as known before any evidence has been put before the inquiry,” Robinson said. Ecojustice’s view is that later tweaks to the inquiry’s terms of reference don’t allay bias concerns, he added.

At a news conference Thursday, Kenney accused organizations of taking up to tens of millions in foreign money to kill proposed pipelines, “deliberately attacking the lifeblood of Alberta’s economy.”

“We have every right to seek transparency on what’s going on.”

Robinson also said Kenney and his party stated repeatedly that the inquiry’s results could be used to challenge the charitable status of certain groups and disrupt their funding from government sources.

Government lawyer Peter Buijs said there’s nothing improper about an inquiry supporting future actions, which can be challenged if and when they occur.

Robinson suggested that the phrase “anti-Alberta” in the inquiry’s terms of reference is problematic.

“The freedom to express opinions, perspectives and positions that differ from the government of Alberta or the Alberta oil and gas industry without being labelled as anti-Alberta … is surely important in a free and democratic society.”

Buijs countered that “anti-Alberta” refers to campaigns against its energy sector, not specific groups or individuals.

Robinson also told court that the inquiry’s commissioner donated to and actively campaigned for Doug Schweitzer in the 2019 election campaign. Schweitzer would months later, as justice minister, decry a “foreign-funded misinformation campaign” during a news conference to announce the inquiry, court heard.

“It would be very difficult for any reasonably informed bystander to view Mr. Allan as sufficiently independent,” Robinson said.

The Alberta government argues politicians’ partisan comments are distinct from Allan’s presumed impartiality.

Ecojustice is also arguing that the inquiry deals with matters outside Alberta’s jurisdiction, such as international and interprovincial flows of money and regulation of charities.

Buijs said those issues are peripheral to the main crux of the inquiry.

“This is directed toward protecting Alberta’s oil and gas industry,” Buijs said. “That is the main focus or the dominant purpose.”

The deadline for Allan to deliver his report to the government has been delayed three times and the inquiry’s budget has been increased by $1 million to $3.5 million. Ecojustice has asked Horner to order that its release be barred until she delivers a ruling.

Lawyers for Allan and a consortium of pro-industry interveners are to present at the hearing Friday.

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