Canadian Manufacturing

Judge tosses application to pause Alberta inquiry into funding of oil and gas foes

The lawsuit was scheduled to be heard in April, but the COVID-19 pandemic put in on hold

December 1, 2020  The Canadian Press

CALGARY — An environmental law group has lost its bid to pause Alberta’s inquiry into where critics of its oil and gas industry get their funding.

Ecojustice sought an injunction in the summer to suspend the inquiry until there is a ruling on whether it is legal.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Karen Horner dismissed the application with costs on Nov. 27.

“The court’s decision, while disappointing, won’t stop Ecojustice from continuing to challenge the Kenney government’s inquiry into `anti-Alberta’ activities and expose it for the sham that it is,” executive director Devon Page said in a statement on Nov. 30.

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative government contend foreign interests have long been bankrolling campaigns against fossil fuel development. In 2019, forensic accountant Steve Allan was tapped to lead the $2.5-million inquiry.

Allan’s report was initially due in July, but after two extensions and a $1-million budget increase, it is now expected by Jan. 31. Energy Minister Sonya Savage must publish the final report within 90 days of receiving it.

“The Government of Alberta is pleased to see the courts strike down a nuisance injunction application by Ecojustice designed to slow down the Public Inquiry into Foreign Funded Campaigns,” Alberta Energy spokesman Kavi Bal said in a statement.

Ecojustice filed a lawsuit last November alleging the inquiry is politically motivated, biased and outside provincial jurisdiction.

“Its purpose really was to shut up opponents to Alberta oil and gas and it was something that was driven directly by the premier,” Page said in an interview.

Ecojustice wanted Allan’s work paused because if his findings were to be released before a court ruled on the lawsuit, environmental groups could suffer reputational harm in the meantime.

Horner said in her decision that Ecojustice had to prove there is a serious issue to be tried, it would suffer irreparable harm if the injunction isn’t granted and it would suffer greater harm than its opponent if the injunction is refused.

The judge ruled Ecojustice satisfied the first test but failed the other two.

“Mr. Page suggests that a risk of harm exists in the ‘possibility’ of being called to respond to the inquiry that may have no legal foundation. However, I am not convinced that a mere ‘possibility’ amounts to evidence of irreparable harm that is both clear and not speculative,” Horner wrote.

“The allegations of improper purpose, bias, and lack of jurisdiction are issues to be examined and resolved in the upcoming judicial review.”

The lawsuit was scheduled to be heard in April, but the COVID-19 pandemic put in on hold. Page said December or early-February hearing dates are now being discussed.

Page, who has criticized the inquiry for its lack of transparency, said he’s recently heard from groups who have received letters from Allan requesting clarification on publicly available tax information.

“It just makes us more confused about what’s going on.”

One Nov. 6 letter to a group, whose name had been removed because Page did not have their permission to publicize it, requested written or oral responses by Dec. 4.

“Basically it looks like (Allan is) on a fishing expedition to get the information that he’s had 18 months to accumulate,” said Page.

“So what’s he been doing?”