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

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

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

An environmental charity argues 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.

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

Ecojustice argues the inquiry, a plank of the “fight-back” strategy the United Conservatives touted during the 2019 election campaign, was formed for an improper purpose.

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

Lawyers for the provincial government say in their written submissions that cabinet is entitled — and mandated — to decide what’s in the public interest and what issues warrant a public inquiry. They also say that questions before the inquiry concern the province’s economic viability.

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” that 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.

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.

He suggested that the phrase “anti-Alberta campaigns” 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.”

Robinson also told court that Allan 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.

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

A brief submitted on behalf of Allan notes he has donated to campaigns across the political spectrum, but Robinson countered the amount for the UCP far eclipses those to other parties. The Alberta government’s written submissions say 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. The province counters that the defence of its natural resources industry is well within its purview.

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.

The hearing into Ecojustice’s challenge has been scheduled for two days. Its initial date last April was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press