One of the Alberta government’s long-standing public relations strategies has been to proclaim the importance of oil extraction to Canada. Without income from the oil sands, oil-friendly politicians and lobbyists insist, the Canadian economy would struggle to generate prosperity for Canadians.
This has been a remarkably effective communications strategy, especially in Alberta, where the link between oil and jobs has been cemented into the minds of many citizens as the one and only way to ensure provincial and national prosperity. It has provided industry and government with a ‘go to’ story of why it’s still okay to extract oil from the oil sands, even at a time of mounting concern over the all-too-real consequences of climate change and a recognition of the need for immediate action to secure the planet’s future.
In order to maintain the status quo with respect to resource extraction in Alberta, government and industry have tried their best to muddy the waters through a range of disinformation campaigns. The most infamous of these was Alberta’s “ethical oil”, which argued that there are better and worse kinds of oil in the world, and that it is better to get oil from Canada than most other oil producing nations, such as Saudi Arabia. Leaving aside the validity of such distinctions, it is safe to say that all kinds of oil produce carbon dioxide, and that emissions from Canadian production are among the most intensive in the world.
Despite the millions in public dollars already spent on pro-oil public relations, recent reports suggest that Alberta’s attempt to put a positive spin on the oil sands has reached a dangerous new low—which, given the rhetoric on oil emerging from the Kenney government, is saying a lot. “A New Global Paradigm: Understanding the Transnational Progressive Movement, the Energy Transition and the Great Transformation Strangling Alberta’s Petroleum Industry,” a report submitted as part of the ongoing public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns, is the Alberta government’s most extreme attempt yet to kill the messenger, this time by claiming that climate change journalists are little more than propagandists. The report suggests that instead of telling the truth, journalists are carrying out the wishes of global elites (everyone from Prince Charles to George Soros) and global institutions (everything from the United Nations Children’s Fund to World Economic Forum) that are supposedly intent on abolishing capitalism by backing a global “progressive” movement.
It’s tempting to just dismiss this report out of hand. Studies of climate change reporting have come to the opposite conclusion: by trying to present both sides of the story of climate change, journalists have, until recently, significantly underplayed scientific consensus on the reality of climate change. The author of the report clearly hasn’t done their homework. And why would global elites want to abolish capitalism – the very system that makes them elites?
But making a legitimate argument isn’t, of course, the point of this report, nor of others collected by the inquiry thus far. Just as with “ethical oil,” the point is to confuse the issue. It is supposed to frame oil extraction in Alberta as no longer just a way to make money, but as a way to safeguard capitalism and democracy against a massive, global conspiracy which threatens to return us to the political dark ages.
But making a legitimate argument isn’t, of course, the point of this report, nor of others collected by the inquiry thus far. Just as with “ethical oil,” the point is to confuse the issue.
The conspiracy theory mobilized by Alberta’s government is also troubling because it draws from and reiterates themes used by right-wing populist governments, parties and politicians around the world, who use similar stories to distract citizens from anti-democratic practices at the national level by putting the problem elsewhere, at the global level. In these conspiracy stories, the 90-year old billionaire philanthropist George Soros is often named as the puppet master of a global movement for environmental sustainability that plots to turn the world into an Orwellian nightmare.
Russia and Hungary have done the most to promulgate this delusion, though it has found its way into other Central and Eastern European countries, and even into China and Brazil. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has repeatedly used Soros as a punching bag to distract from the litany of his government’s dangerously illiberal policies. Romania has seen large street protests against Soros and his imagined EU-backed cabal. The idea of a dangerous, Soros-led, global left-wing conspiracy also played a significant role in Donald Trump’s Make American Great Again campaign. Among his other evil machinations, Soros has been accused by MAGA supporters of paying demonstrators to participate in Black Lives Matters protests. Everywhere such accusations have been made, they have fomented anti-immigrant, anti-internationalist, violently pro-nationalist, and anti-Semitic sentiment.
Alberta is in danger of becoming the latest member of this proud league of far-Right populist nations. The growing list of political missteps taken by the Kenney government—which includes revelations of pandemic holiday trips by cabinet ministers, MLAs, and senior staffers, and its recent hasty cancellation of newly approved coal-mining leases—may have made it into a political laughing stock, prone to ever more desperate gestures to maintain its hold on power. But there’s nothing funny about the anti-Alberta energy inquiry and its turn to the language and logic employed by populist states. Canadians – and Albertans – should be extremely concerned.
László Németh is an independent researcher based in Winnipeg.