So many self-inflicted wounds, so few allies. Alberta's energy war room was long doomed

It was never really the war room that former Alberta premier Jason Kenney dreamed of.

And even if it had turned out that way, it's not clear it would have worked any better than the pro-oil entity his UCP government actually wound up creating.

Either way, the Canadian Energy Centre never seemed to reach its promised potential. And this week Premier Danielle Smith abandoned the idea, dissolving the organization into her own government, making it a lesser tool in her own fight on behalf of the oil and gas sector.

Kenney, at a 2018 gathering of his United Conservative Party, pledged a "fully staffed rapid-response war room in government to quickly and effectively rebut every lie told by the green left about our world-class energy industry."

That line worked well in a room full of pro-oil partisans who felt their province's main industry under siege. And it surely felt familiar to Kenney himself, who'd spend so many federal elections in the Conservative Party war room, pumping out attack after counter-attack against the Liberals, NDP or any other would-be threat to his own faction.

Un-declaring war

After Kenney was elected premier in 2019, his team quickly realized that electoral skirmishes and industry advocacy didn't quite work the same way.

The "war room" title would have to go, in favour of the more genial-sounding Canadian Energy Centre, even if detractors never abandoned the combative term which Kenney used at its conception.

The "rapid response" element remained the provocative part of its initial mission, but only part, along with teams focused on research and "energy literacy." And while Kenney pitched it as a $30-million-a-year operation that would outduel the climate-activist PR machine, it instead became notorious for an  abortive social-media tirade against the New York Times and going after a Netflix cartoon film for its anti-development themes.

It tried to take down Big Green. It instead picked fights with Bigfoot Family.

Other early controversies dogged the outfit, led by Tom Olsen, a former UCP candidate and press secretary to former premier Ed Stelmach. It was set up as a provincial corporation, avoiding the reaches of Freedom of Information requests. It had to scrap logos that were too similar to those of existing companies. Its taxpayer-funded research staffers were criticized for calling themselves "reporters" for pro-industry articles on its website.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney looks on as Tom Olsen, managing director of the Canadian Energy Centre, addresses a press conference at SAIT in December.
Jason Kenney, then premier of Alberta, looks on as Canadian Energy Centre CEO Tom Olsen speaks in 2019. Olsen will get three months' severance after his role in the controversial provincial agency was eliminated this week. (Greg Fulmes/Canadian Press)

And in time, its bid to become the pugnacious attacker of oil and gas detractors faded. It instead became a content factory of stories that promoted the sector, and a prolific advertiser — where most of its budget went over the years. It spent $26 million overall in 2022-2023, the last year for which figures are publicly available.

And what did it get to show for that government spending, if not a chastened anti-oil side? Fewer than half a million website visits a year, according to its own annual report.

Of those, more than one-quarter were Alberta clicks, meaning that its biggest single audience was actually in its home base — much publicly funded preaching to the converted.

"If all you're doing is targeting the people that already agree with you, you're not able to get to the rest of them," said Ryan Williams, the president of Drake Oilfield Supply, in 2020, one year into the energy centre's life.

Kenney and even some allies within the energy sector believed this provincially run — albeit arms' length — organization could succeed where the industry's own advocacy groups had struggled to spread a good-news gospel about Alberta oil.

But this taxpayer-funded information website, brimming with more than 100 pro-industry articles a year, gets fewer monthly visits than the privately funded websites of Pathways Alliance, Canada Action and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers — as well as sustainability think-tank Pembina Institute, according to

A sampling of pro-industry stories on the Canadian Energy Centre website. Government-funded staff writers and freelancers pumped out more than 100 articles a year, but the website logged a little more than 1,000 visits per day.
A sampling of pro-industry stories on the Canadian Energy Centre website. Government-funded staff writers and freelancers pumped out more than 100 articles a year, but the website logged a little more than 1,000 visits per day. (Screen shot/

Its account on X (formerly Twitter) has 11,000 followers, compared to 276,800 for Premier Smith and 38,100 for Ecojustice.

It does better on Facebook, with 97,000 followers, but it also advertises heavily there to boost its profile.

"This was meant to close that gap and change the narrative. I don't think that anything changed," said Deborah Yedlin of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce in an interview with CBC News.

It became seen as home-team boosting. What the industry would actually benefit from is third-party validation, Yedlin said. "You're coming from a place of bias. You are talking [up] your own book."

Calling it a war room, she added, "doesn't necessarily set yourself up for a spirit of collaboration."

Danielle Smith's war

Smith quietly made the change this week, pulling a few staff from the stand-alone Energy Centre into the provincial government's intergovernmental relations division, which falls directly under the premier's own supervision.

Those employees will continue to produce research under the CEC brand. Olsen, the centre's $241,000-a-year chief executive, is out once the transition is complete, Smith's office confirmed. He confirmed in a social media post that he will receive three months' pay as severance.

When Smith took over the premiership from Kenney in 2022, it wasn't clear she'd maintain his big idea. She hung on to it for about 19 months.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks on invoking her government’s sovereignty act over federal clean energy regulations, in Edmonton on Nov. 27.
Premier Danielle Smith says she's better equipped to do fighting on the oil and gas sector's behalf than the 'war room.' (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

"Having the moniker 'war room,' is not what they should be doing," she told reporters Wednesday (even if Kenney tried to abandon that moniker himself five years ago with the CEC name).

"They should be giving good, credible research and data on the state of our industry, the state of our emissions reduction," Smith added.

"And they should leave the fight to me."

Smith and her team certainly have enjoyed relishing that fight, particularly against the Trudeau government's environmental policies. Kenney, too, often seemed to be swifter with the swipes at critics than his multimillion-dollar provincial agency was.

The Alberta NDP and others spent its entire four-and-a-half-year life calling the Canadian Energy Centre a bad idea and a waste of money. The Alberta government will continue to boost oil and gas in advertisements and advocacy — the NDP certainly did that — but one of the biggest targets of criticism that the UCP created is no more.

If not even the industry believed in it, not many Albertans will likely mourn its loss.