An organization that spreads propaganda on behalf of the Alberta government has registered as a “foreign agent” in the U.S. so that it can “influence American public opinion” amid the Ukraine crisis in favor of importing more Canadian oil, according to documents viewed by VICE News.
The documents were filed earlier this month with the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the Canadian Energy Centre, also known as the “energy war room,” which is funded by the Alberta government and has a board of directors composed of three provincial cabinet ministers.
The Canadian Energy Centre says in the documents, required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, that it is working with public relations company DDB Canada on “political activity” in the U.S. The goal of this activity is to “influence American public opinion with respect to the Canadian oil and gas industry.” It says that advertising “materials will be disseminated to the general public” to achieve this goal.
The irony is that the Alberta government has spent years trying to delegitimize its environmental critics as belonging to “foreign-funded misinformation campaigns” that hide their true interests from the public.
“They have so heavily criticized any form of foreign engagement or influence,” Tzeporah Berman, international program director at the environmental group Stand.earth, told VICE News. “This push in the U.S. shows how hypocritical they are.”
Alberta is home to the third-biggest proven oil reserves on the planet, making Canada the largest foreign supplier of oil to the U.S. But Alberta’s oil sands industry has been criticized by President Joe Biden and other U.S. Democratic policymakers including Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib for its heavy environmental impacts.
With the Biden administration banning Russian oil in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Canadian Energy Centre is now arguing that the U.S. should import more oil from Alberta instead.
“Russia changed the global energy conversation,” reads a recent print advertisement in the Washington Post paid for by the centre. “If not Canada, who are you are entrusting your country’s energy security to?”
An accompanying website urges people to follow a Facebook page called “Friendly Energy.” But neither the ad, the website, nor the Facebook page identifies the Canadian Energy Centre as an organization set up, funded, and governed by the United Conservative Party government of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.
“It is an Alberta government propaganda office meant to spread pro-oil industry propaganda while disguising the source of the propaganda,” Drew Yewchuk, a lawyer with the University of Calgary’s Public Interest Law Clinic, told VICE News.
But many of its campaigns have backfired. Last year, the war room was ridiculed for attacking a Netflix children’s film called Bigfoot Family that it said was “brainwashing our kids” with pro-environmental messages. In 2020, it apologized for tweets alleging antisemitism at the New York Times after the outlet ran an article about financial threats to the oil sands.
The current advertising materials for the U.S. were created by DDB Canada, which is owned by Omnicom, a global public relations firm that has called climate change “the biggest existentialist crisis in living memory.” Neither DDB Canada nor Omnicom responded to requests for comment.
The topic of “foreign organizations” criticizing the oil sands is extremely touchy for the Alberta government. It even spent $3.5 million on an inquiry into whether environmental groups secretly funded by Americans have “disseminated incomplete, misleading, or false information about the Alberta oil and gas industry” in order to “influence matters of public interest to Albertans and Canadians.” That inquiry found no evidence of wrongdoing.
But the Canadian Energy Centre thinks foreign influence is totally fine as long as it’s the one doing the influencing. “Every dollar we spend is accounted for by Alberta’s Office of the Auditor General,” the centre’s CEO Tom Olsen wrote in an email to VICE News. “Anti-oil and gas groups aren’t subject to the same.”
Olsen said the Alberta government’s U.S. campaign is having an impact. “You might be interested to know that billboards we put up in Washington, D.C., and New York City reached 12 million people,” he wrote.
Yet any attempt to increase oil sands imports to the U.S. is likely to run into opposition. In recent years, there have been campaigns to block pipelines from Canada in Michigan, Minnesota, and Maine. Biden rejected the Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office.
“So many times the American public has rejected tar sands,” Duncan Meisel, campaign director of the climate group Clean Creatives, told VICE News. “And the Alberta government just won’t give up.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Drew Yewchuk’s name.