The Alberta government has granted a third deadline extension for an inquiry into how the province's oil and gas critics are funded.
Commissioner Steve Allan now has until May 31, 2021, to submit his final report into whether foreign money is bankrolling campaigns to besmirch the reputation of Alberta oil and gas products, according to a cabinet decision posted Friday night.
Energy Minister Sonya Savage said in a statement cabinet is granting Allan an additional four months "to ensure he is able to complete a comprehensive investigation into a possible well-funded foreign campaign aimed at discrediting the province's energy sector."
The extension will allow potential participants to have "a fair opportunity to provide input," the statement said.
The inquiry's budget remains at $3.5 million — the government is not committing any additional money to the exercise, she said.
Allan was to submit his final report to the government on Sunday.
In a statement posted Friday night to the inquiry's website, Allan said the extension will allow the inquiry to "engage with persons who may be the subject of a finding of misconduct or the subject of a materially adverse factual finding" and provide them with an opportunity to respond.
Several environmental groups in the inquiry's crosshairs say they have never been contacted by the inquirer and their correspondence has gone unanswered.
The inquiry has also reviewed "voluminous material" spanning 20 years, which has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Allan's statement said.
The organization Ecojustice, which is poised to challenge the inquiry's legitimacy in court next month, will now have more time to try and halt a process they say is unjust and biased, executive director Devon Page said in an interview Friday night.
"It's frankly been a gong show right from the start, with fumbles and missteps," he said.
Most public inquiries would follow a judicial process where parties present evidence publicly and witnesses are cross-examined, he said. Ecojustice has proposed the inquiry follow such a process, but no public hearings have been organized, Page said.
Although the inquiry commissioned, paid for and published reports that make claims about Greenpeace, the organization has never been contacted by the inquiry, senior energy strategist Keith Stewart said on Friday night.
Stewart said he feels no more confident a time extension will lead to a fairer process.
"We're concerned that they will publish something that includes false information without ever having spoken to us," he said.
He said over the years, Greenpeace has received more donations from Albertans concerned about the environment than funding from foreign donors.
"This has been a disaster from start to finish," he said of the inquiry.
Inquiry granted three extensions, increased budget
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative government contend foreign interests have long been paying for campaigns against fossil fuel development in the province.
Allan, a forensic accountant, was tapped to lead the $2.5-million public inquiry in 2019.
Allan's report was initially due last July but was given two extensions and a $1-million budget increase.
Savage must publish the final report within 90 days of receiving it.
Environmental law group Ecojustice filed a lawsuit in November 2019 alleging the inquiry is politically motivated, biased and outside provincial jurisdiction. Late last year, it lost a court bid to have Allan's work paused until there is a ruling on its case.
Eleven groups and individuals were granted standing to be a "participant for commentary" before the inquiry. The inquiry has not disclosed their identities.
Participants were provided with a list of reading material, including reports commissioned and funded by the inquiry, that critics have slammed for denying or downplaying human-caused climate change.
Since the inquiry was announced, Alberta's energy minister had added $1 million to the inquiry's budget and pushed back the deadline for Allan's final report to the end of January.
But even as the government poured more time and resources into the inquiry, it has several times amended its scope and scale, ultimately limiting what the inquiry is expected to yield.
In a September 2020 update to his inquiry's terms of reference, Allan said he won't be able to check whether scientific claims critical of the province's energy industry are misleading or false, calling that a "colossal undertaking" he cannot accomplish under his mandate.