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Who’s behind Alberta’s oil & gas war room?

In 2019, the UCP government created a private corporation to serve as an oil and gas propaganda machine. Here’s who works there.

In October 2019, the Alberta government created the Canadian Energy Centre, also known as Alberta’s Energy War Room. It’s a propaganda machine, designed to sway public opinion in favour of fossil fuel extraction with Alberta.

Anyhow, I thought it’d be interesting to see who’s behind this technically private corporation. Here are all the people I was able to determine are involved with the Canadian Energy Centre.

Board of directors

The Energy War Room’s board of directors are 3 UCP cabinet ministers:

  • Sonya Savage, minister of energy
  • Doug Schweitzer, minister of jobs, economy, and innovation
  • Jason Nixon, minister of environment and parks

Management

The mangement of the Canadian Energy Centre are the following 3 people:

  • Tom Olsen, CEO and managing director
  • Mike Simpson, executive director of operations
  • Mark Milke, executive director of research

Prior to leading the CEC, Tom Olsen was a public affairs professional, both as an independent contractor and with the Calgary team of McMillan Vantage, an international public affairs firm. At one point, he was also a journalist with the Calgary Sun, the Calgary Herald, and the Edmonton Journal, including a stint as an assistant editor.

In 2007, Ed Stelmach, then the premier, hired Olsen to be his spokesperson. Olsen’s brother Gordon was a spokesperson for Ralph Klein, when he was premier. Olsen served as VP of communications for the PC party while Jim Prentice was party leader. He also ran as the UCP candidate in the 2019 provincial election against Joe Ceci in the Calgary–Buffalo. Ceci won the riding, which went to the NDP.

According to the CEC’s 2019–2020 annual report, Olsen received $115,804 in total compensation.

Mike Simpson came to the CEC with a background of industry public affairs, first as a government and industry relations supervisor with Devon Energy and then as a public affairs officer with Canadian Natural Resources, which bought out Devon. He also worked as a public servant from 2004 to 2013, including chief of staff to the minister of sustainable resource development.

Mark Milke has an extensive employment background with right-wing think tanks. He started out with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation as their Alberta director in 1997 then took a similar position in BC a couple of years later. He went back to school 3 years later and graduated from the University of Calgary with a PhD in international relations and political philosophy.

Milke’s next job was as research director with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a climate denial organization, before moving on to the Fraser Institute a couple years later as a senior fellow. About 5 years later, he worked with HRJ Consulting for 2 years until Jason Kenney hired him to be his principal policy advisor leading up to the 2019 provincial election. He also co-founded SecondStreet.org and is a past president of Civitas Canada.

Feel free to visit his personal blog if you want to see his thoughts on various topics, ranging from oil and gas to rent control and conspiracy theories.

Both Simpson’s and Milke’s annual salary is $171,600, with an additional 14% of that salary in lieu of pension and 10% lieu of health benefits.

Staff

Lennie Kaplan is chief research analyst for the Energy War Room. Kaplan was a lobbyist with the Toronto-based firm GPC International, representing the Calgary-based Williams Energy in an effort to petition the federal government regarding the Georgia Strait Crossing Project. He worked on Kenney’s transition team. Less than a month after the UCP took office, Kaplan was awarded a $63,000 sole-source contract to provide executive support for the MacKinnon Panel.

He also worked for Lyle Oberg, who was once finance minister; Mike Percy, who served as the Alberta Liberal Party’s finance critic; and as a researcher for the Liberal caucus.

Ven Venkatachalam is the CEC’s senior research analyst. Prior to this role, he was a research associate at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. This is the same school where economist Jack Mintz works. In fact, the two of them have published multiple articles together—mostly on tax policy, however. Venkatachalam graduated from the U of C’s Master of Public Policy programme in 2013. He also was an independent researcher, which included consulting governments and private organizations on finance and taxation throughout Asia, Europe, and North America.

Deborah Jaremko, the CEC’s director of content and website management, had previously worked as writer and editor for 16 years with JWN Energy, an online media outlet focused on the fossil fuel industry. Prior to that, she was a staff writer for Suncor, in what appears to be a student internship while working on her journalism degree from what was then Mount Royal College.

Shawn Logan was plucked from Postmedia to be senior content producer for the Energy War Room. While at Postmedia, he wrote on local news and crime for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun.

Finally, Joanne Birce is the office administrator for the outfit. Her work before joining the team in 2019 was as a constituency assistant to Conservative MP Ron Liepert, as well as operations manager for the Calgary Fiddle Association. She sits on the board of directors for both the provincial Calgary–Bow UCP constituency association and the federal Calgary–Signal Hill CPC constituency association.

The annual report didn’t break down remuneration for staff outside of the executive.

These were all the staff listed on the website. There is a David Chidley who included the CEC as current work experience on his LinkedIn profile, along with this photography business; however, the CEC website doesn’t list him with the other staff.

By Kim Siever

I live in Lethbridge with my spouse and 4 of our 6 children. I’m a writer, focusing on political news, social issues, and the occasional poem. My politics are radically left.

I’m also dichotomally Mormon. And I’m a functional vegetarian: I have a blog post about that somewhere around here. My pronouns are he/him, and I’m queer.

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