Stupid is as the War Room does

The only question left: is this incompetence intentional or just another example of Hanlon's Razor in action?

As former Indianapolis Republican Congressman Charles Brownson famously said, “I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” But having done that already with the New York Times, apparently this newsletter’s namesake decided to test the 21st century equivalent, which is picking a fight with a company that uses data by the terabyte. In perhaps its stupidest scandal yet, the Alberta Energy War Room decided to go after Netflix because of a children’s cartoon called “Bigfoot Family” that apparently cast aspersions on the oil and gas industry.

There’s already a petition, one filled with errors of grammar and fact, that calls on the entertainment giant to “tell the truth” about Canada’s energy sector. There are many, many layers of irony and incompetence here, but let’s start with CEO Tom Olsen’s officially explanation for the campaign. Here’s his email to the National Post’s Tyler Dawson:

If Tom Olsen didn’t know what the Streisand Effect was before today, he surely does now. Netflix, for its part, is surely appreciative of the free advertising from the Government of Alberta. But the show in question has nothing do with Alberta, specifically. Instead, it features a scene in which a cartoonishly evil (hey, it’s a cartoon) oil baron tries to blow up a valley with a nuclear weapon in order to get access to the oil below.

Here’s the video, in case you haven’t seen it:

Why did the War Room think this was a reference to Alberta? Because a company literally planned to do that here back in the late 1950s. Project Cauldron, which went on to be called Project Oilsand, revolved around a plan to detonate as many as 100 nuclear weapons in the Athabasca Oil Sands. It was approved in 1959 by the Government of Alberta and a test site in Pony Creek, just over 100 kilometres from Fort McMurray, was selected. But after the Government of Canada moved to embrace nuclear non-proliferation in the early 1960s, the idea was scrapped.

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But make no mistake: Alberta’s oil and gas industry hasn’t exactly given up on the idea of using combustion and explosives to tap the sticky bitumen in the oil sands. When I last visited the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in 2015, it still proudly featured a video on something called “Toe Heel Air Injection” technology, or THAI, which essentially involved lighting the oil on fire while it was still underground, which theoretically produced a lighter and cleaner grade when it came to the surface. The company that patented the technology, Petrobank, ran into all kinds of financial and operational problems and was eventually merged with another company in 2014, its assets worth pennies on what used to be dollars. Its former CEO, Chris Bloomer, is now the CEO of the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association.

Better yet, Bigfootgate isn’t the only dumb thing the War Room did this week. On Wednesday, it released a new fact sheet on environmental spending in the oil and gas industry, and former Government of Alberta communications guru Corey Hogan noted on Twitter, it did so in a way that violates just about every best practice in his field.

This seemingly boundless capacity for self-injury on the War Room’s part raises an interesting question, one that I’ve been asked many times: are they really this stupid? After all, as I pointed out on Twitter earlier today, they couldn’t even get basic facts and figures right in their criticism of Netflix:

So what’s going on here? Is this the most impossibly incompetent campaign in the history of professional communications, or is the digital slapstick a cover for what the War Room is really doing? While we dunk on them for all the bullets they’re putting in their feet, are they secretly out there using their $30 million annual budget (now reduced to $12 million) to advance the UCP’s political objectives?

Anything’s possible, I suppose, and I’m open to evidence that proves it here. But for now, I have to rely on Hanlon’s Razor, which stipulates that you should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". Until we see evidence of something more sophisticated going on here, I have to assume that this is what happens when you hire your mediocre political friends and allies rather than talented communicators.

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But either way, Alberta’s oil and gas industry should have seen more than enough by now. Even if this is part of some broader political subterfuge, it’s doing real and immediate damage to their brand and economic prospects. It’s time for them to tie a can to this fiasco before it picks any more stupid fights.


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In other news, I’m now taking paid subscriptions here, and so far many of you have stepped up to support what I’m doing. If we can keep that ball rolling, and get to 100 paid annual subscriptions, I’ll be able to afford the cost of starting a new podcast. We’re about 15% of the way there, so to those who have donated: thank you. To those who are thinking about……well, I’ll keep doing my best to convince you that it’s worth it.