It’s always good to start the new year on a positive note.
So let’s laud Alberta’s Canadian Energy Centre for spurring an oil and gas literacy movement.
If the centre had launched seamlessly, deploying its enormous $30 million budget to produce a slick and professional government propaganda arm, it would have simply provided talking points for the already converted.
Pro-government pundits and columnists, of which there are a surfeit in Alberta, would have parroted the centre’s dry defence of unchecked energy development and repeated the United Conservative catch phrases about ethically produced, environmentally regulated, job creating oil sands.
But thanks to a decidedly shaky and error-bedevilled launch, the centre instead has become a flourishing source of debate; a focus for a sometimes surprisingly erudite discussion of energy economics and forecasting; weighty discussion of per-oil-barrel carbon intensity, and the ethics of how government uses taxpayers’ dollars to craft its narrative.
It seems the energy centre, still popularly known as Jason Kenney’s war room, has been subjected to an exceptionally harsh spotlight thanks to its early goofs. Take for instance its branding. The first logo on the website had to be junked because of its similarity to a software firm brand. A second logo has also been compared to yet another company’s logo and there are now rumblings about legal action from that firm.
A chef, interviewed for an innocuous feature on cooking with natural gas, is complaining that he wasn’t made aware the energy centre is a government-run operation. And the whole issue of whether CEC writers are identifying themselves as journalists or reporters has raised the ire of the Canadian Association of Journalists, incensed about apparent misrepresentation.
The centre’s missteps have spurred a bit of nitpicking. Sharp-eyed critics single out every typo in every CEC tweet. They argue that surely $30 million should cover the cost of a proofreader who can tell the difference between ‘reign’ and ‘rein’.
But beyond the easy sniping, there is some reasoned discussion taking place centred on the CEC’s frequent social media posts. The debate may be polarized but picking through it provides some valuable insights both for and against Alberta’s energy economy.
Economist Andrew Leach provides long and detailed contextual responses to CEC claims, for instance. He doesn’t disagree with all CEC numbers, but adds more data, often to counter the war room’s narrative.
In a Dec. 31 post he points out that after a challenge the CEC refined its argument on oil sand development’s carbon footprint to reflect the facts he laid out in a counter Twitter post. Even Leach says in his response that’s a “useful reminder that there isn’t a single way to measure emissions intensity.”
There are other contributors to the debate offering wider lens looks at just about everything the CEC posts on its website, Twitter or Facebook. Casual readers may come for the sarcasm and/or outrage, but there is some potential they will stay for the discussion, which is an important one for the future of Alberta and its economy.
Since Alberta taxpayers are stuck with the $30 million annual expense of the CEC, they might as well make the most of what’s on offer. Rather than dismiss every story and number-heavy manifesto as government propaganda, they should scroll through the comments to get all the many sides there are on these topics.
Sifting the information provided by economists, political scientists, indigenous commentators, oil patch staff and executives and general observers might take time, but getting a well-rounded feel for the entire economic/environmental/climate change debate is a worthy effort for an informed voter.
It will be simple in future for CEC contributors to identify themselves as writers to sources rather than reporters or journalists, and be upfront about the nature of the website employing them. The editors should continue to be willing to fine-tune or correct when their numbers or generalizations are pointed out as being too broad to be defensible.
While the energy centre may get slicker over time, its rocky start served a counter-intuitive purpose – everyone is watching very closely. And if that close attention produces a wide forum for all the facts, not just the government narrative, that might be a good thing.
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