Alberta’s Petrostate Propaganda Has Turned Conspiratorial
The pro-oil movement is increasingly straying into conspiracy theory.
A specter is haunting North America—the specter of the Transnational Progressive Movement.
A specter is haunting North America—the specter of the Transnational Progressive Movement.
All the powers of North America and Europe have entered into an unholy alliance: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Joe Biden, eco-socialists and industrial heavyweights. They have conspired to enact a “fundamental paradigm shift,” or a Great Transformation, “to a new energy economy that will halt fossil fuel use and development,” all with the secret goal of establishing “a new global low-carbon, net-zero civilization.”
To get there, they will tar the Canadian province Alberta, the last bastion of ethically produced petroleum, into a global pariah “like apartheid in South Africa.”
This vision of the world comes from a state-funded report published by the Anti-Alberta Energy Public Inquiry, established by the government of Canada’s oil-rich western province. And although it is detached from reality, it’s a viewpoint increasingly common among climate skeptics.
The report argues that basically every liberal, progressive, and environmentalist actor in the West is part of an orchestrated big-money plot to destroy the Alberta oil sands. The report marries decades of climate change skepticism with recent conspiracy theories of a global deep state plan for a so-called great reset.
This Transnational Progressive Movement, author Tammy L. Nemeth writes, has leveraged the World Economic Forum; billionaire George Soros; the esoteric Club of Rome (a long-term bugbear of anti-environmentalists); the United Nations; a “vast array” of academics, think tanks, and businesses; and other organizations “to infiltrate capitalist organizations” and funnel “vast amounts” of money “to delegitimize, alienate, and harass oil sands producers.” Through slogans like the Green New Deal and by utilizing social media, the movement plans to forge a new culture “which the public does not realize will create a new global civilization based on degrowth and renewable energy.”
The report’s wild claims went viral. The inquiry quickly insisted that the report, which VICE News reports they paid, was merely one perspective of many being considered. The report, however, is reflective of a growing conspiratorial bent among some in the North American resource sector. It shows a shift inside the climate skeptic movement as its long-standing claims crumble in the face of mounting and undeniable evidence: one that takes its cues from former President Donald Trump’s dire warnings of deep state plots and the efforts of true believers, including the followers of other conspiracy theories like QAnon, to provide research, however shaky, to underpin that claim.
Albertan Premier Jason Kenney’s whole life has been politics, from political assistant to head of a deficit hawk advocacy group before he made a successful run for federal office in 1997, when he was just 29 years old. Elected under the right-wing populist Reform Party banner, Kenney and his colleagues went to Ottawa to argue the Canadian West—Alberta, in particular—was not getting as much out of the federation as they were putting in.
Kenney made a name for himself over the next decade: doggedly conservative, deeply religious, but also pragmatic and effective. He was an adept organizer in immigrant and cultural communities and, after the Reform Party merged with Canada’s more center-right party, was credited with helping propel the newly formed Conservative Party to government. He spent the ensuing years serving at various times as minister for immigration, employment, and defense.
When his party was bumped from power in 2015, Kenney declined invitations to vie for the prime minister position, instead decamping to Alberta where he successfully united the two competing right-wing parties in the Alberta legislature like had been done federally a decade earlier. By 2017, he was heading up the freshly formed United Conservative Party and driving hard against Alberta’s center-left government, one which had brought in a carbon pricing scheme while also supporting new oil development and pipeline projects.
Kenney billed himself as the best friend of oil and gas producers everywhere, who would fight to the end against carbon pricing and tough regulations. To draw an even clearer between the parties, Kenney hit the campaign trail insisting that foreign funding was the source of much of the province’s woes. And it worked: In April 2019, he was elected premier of Alberta.
“We have been targeted by a foreign-funded campaign of special interests seeking to landlock Canadian energy,” Kenney told the province on election night. He called this a “campaign of economic sabotage.”
Kenney didn’t identify the foreign powers, but he listed their supposed local stooges: the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune, the famous Japanese Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, tiny progressive activist organization Leadnow, and the California-based Tides Foundation, notable for its marginal investments from Soros.
Those groups, he swore, had no interest in fighting U.S. energy production, opposing Saudi energy development, or opposing President Vladimir Putin’s petrostate in Russia. They just wanted to campaign against Albertan oil. “In other words, we’ve been had,” he said.
Kenney’s core point, echoed by others, isn’t entirely wrong: Canada’s oil sands are, in the grand scheme of things, better managed and more ethical than the oil fields of Saudi Arabia or Iran. And it’s true that U.S. philanthropists have an interest in reducing fossil fuel consumption in Canada—as they do elsewhere.
The original plan inside Kenney’s camp was to kill the environmentalists with kindness: Push out accurate, positive information about Canada’s oil sector. This included all the technology advances, the carbon-capture schemes, the clean energy projects – and pointing out that Alberta will eliminate its massive coal power plants in the next decade, replacing them with a huge amount of wind and solar One person familiar with the internal workings of Kenney’s government described the message as: “Our oil may have been dirty in the past, but it’s clean now.”
“Even in a Kyoto-compliant world, there will still be oil production at something like 70 to 75% levels,” they noted. The plan was to highlight those facts.
When Kenney took office, he took $30 million from the state communications budget and shifted it to create the Canadian Energy Centre. The center, generally known as the “war room,” was designed to form a digital armada to do battle with environmentalists and oil skeptics. Notionally independent, the center’s board is composed of a triumvirate of government ministers and run by a former party spokesman. That war room was supposed to be an information clearing house, but it quickly became a sort of political action committee. They took to Twitter to slam the New York Times as disreputable and egged on social media personalities known for peddling misinformation and conspiracies. Four of those tweets have since been deleted.
The war room was a mess, the Alberta insider, who declined to comment on the record, said. “If you had had the right people with the right data, it might have worked.” Instead, Kenney’s government set the tone: The oil hawks were in charge.
Then came the Public Inquiry Into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns, a government-funded arms-length investigation tasked with investigating “the role of foreign funding, if any, in anti-Alberta energy campaigns.”
The modesty of their mission statement betrayed what would later come from the inquiry.
The inquiry commissioned three reports as part of its study. The Nemeth report, with its fear mongering over the Transnational Progressive Movement, faced the most scrutiny. The inquiry also paid for a report from long-term Albertan climate change denier Barry Cooper, which offered little new evidence for widespread foreign funding of Canadian environmentalists but did warn of secret Marxist cabals and that the future of environmental activism would see a rise in “self-radicalization” leading to “‘lone wolf’ [terror] attacks.” The third report is less bombastic and does lay out all U.S. funding received by Canadian foundations and charities—but that point was stymied considerably by the fact that the report was authored by an arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
The inquiry did solicit views from a wide variety of parties—but the inquiry asked them to specifically respond to the three reports. Environmentalists, for example, were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that “environmental non-governmental organizations and activists are key players in a movement funded by well-endowed foundations and interested governments, which movement operates as a decentralized network that is aligned and ideologically motivated to act in concert to end the use of fossil fuels.”
In recent days, Kenney’s war room has done battle with Netflix’s Bigfoot Family. The government-funded center launched a petition, accusing the cartoon of “brainwashing our kids with anti-oil and gas propaganda.” Kenney defended the petition, saying the cartoon attempts to “defame, in the most vicious way possible, in the impressionable minds of kids, the largest industry in the province.”
The Albertan insider, who was not part of the discussions around the public inquiry, likened this public inquiry into foreign financing to hunting the snark—an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem about quixotic quests. (“‘There is Thingumbob shouting!’ the Bellman said/‘He is shouting like mad, only hark!/He is waving his hands, he is wagging his head/He has certainly found a Snark!’”)
In other words: lots of waving of hands and very little evidence of a snark.
But maybe the hunt was the whole point.
Economist Andrew Leach, who teaches energy and environmental business at the University of Alberta, calls this whole quixotic crusade “mind-boggling.”
What strikes Leach the most is how self-defeating the project has been. “The only thing the war room has sown doubt about is itself,” he said. Between that and the inquiry, “it’s not even doing a good job of preaching to the choir.”
This chimerical campaign came at a time when Albertans are increasingly seeing the wisdom of carbon-conscious activism. Rather than viewing Greenpeace as agents of Moscow, support for their brand of aggressive climate action is building in Alberta. Oil and gas companies are coming around too. As oil prices have plummeted and carbon neutrality is seen as increasingly necessary, it’s become evident that some new infrastructure projects may be infeasible, unwise, or both.
But at the same time, muddling the waters may be the point. It’s a trick that leaders elsewhere have tried. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro greenlighted a devastating development campaign in the Amazon Rainforest, which has intensified wildfires in the environmentally sensitive region. To deflect scrutiny, he—perhaps taking a cue from Kenney—blamed environmental nongovernmental organizations for starting the fires. The Republican leadership in Texas conjured up the specter of the Green New Deal after the state’s deregulated energy grid led to a massive shutdown last month, resulting in a still-unknown number of deaths from the cold.
Canadian voters, however, might not have quite the level of tolerance for those antics as others. Kenney’s popularity, battered by an incoherent response to the COVID-19 pandemic and coupled with scant progress in boosting demand in or price for Albertan oil, has taken a hit: Only 40 percent of the province approve of the job he’s doing. Polls shows him trailing the center-left New Democratic Party.
And it may be causing Kenney and his advisors to think twice. His government has stayed largely mum about this supposed scourge of foreign funding in recent months—and it has certainly steered clear of warning about Transnational Progressive Movement horrors. It has acknowledged the scattershot start for the war room, and has recently slashed its funding. His government has even accepted a price on carbon to help Canada hit its Paris Agreement targets.
In an era where distrust in institutions is endemic and where good faith seems in short supply, Kenney’s mishaps are a cautionary tale for governments: If you’re going to unholster these deep state conspiracies, you had better be ready to pull the trigger.
Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto. Twitter: @Justin_Ling
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