Strange Bedfellows: Alberta Brings Former Adversaries Together for New Oilsands Advisory Group

After decades of insufficient or insincere attempts to address emissions from Canada’s fastest growing source of climate pollution, a new government-sponsored oilsands advisory group may help resolve political gridlock surrounding the nation’s most contentious natural resource by bringing together industry, environmental and indigenous stakeholders.

The Oil Sands Advisory Group (OSAG) is tasked with helping the province implement a new emissions cap for the oilsands that limits greenhouse gas output to 100 megatonnes per year and will also advise on reducing the overall environmental impacts of production, according to a government statement released Wednesday.

According to Tzeporah Berman, the group's co-chair and a well-known environmentalist, the composition of the advisory group represents a notable shift in the political landscape.

“Let's be clear: under previous governments environmental leaders had very little access and were outright ridiculed by many ministers and departments,” Berman told DeSmog Canada. “First Nations leaders were simply shut out. Climate change was denied.”

Tweet: ‘A lot has changed in a year in #Alberta and it is opening up new conversations.’ @Tzeporah #ableg #bcpoli #cdnpoli“A lot has changed in a year in Alberta and it is opening up new conversations.”

Alberta announced new climate legislation last fall that for the first time in the province’s history put an end to the notion of endless oilsands growth. Upon release of the new plan, Premier Rachel Notley, flanked by leaders of industry, prominent environmental organizations and local First Nations, said, “This is the day we stop denying this is an issue, and this is the day we do our part.”

The climate plan marked not only a new era of climate leadership (it was called a “pigs fly” situation) but a fresh approach to resolving the political gridlock that for years has pitted climate advocates and environmental groups against a seemingly entangled block of government and industry.

Berman, who stood with Notley during the climate plan announcement in November, said she’s optimistic that, working together, these strange bedfellows can make real change to a stagnant climate leadership environment and “move past the polarization of the oilsands.”

“The fact that the government just appointed people like me, who have been fierce critics shows its resolve to face and solve the hard stuff,” she said. “So instead of trading opinions through the media, those of us who have been 'adversaries' will be sitting down with a common purpose and a shared mandate.”

Dave Collyer, group co-chair and former president of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, echoed the sentiment: “It is the diversity of this group and its problem-solving focus on emissions leadership, local environmental performance and innovation that will help de-escalate conflict and contribute to the ongoing success of this important industry.”

According to the Conference Board of Canada, Canada ranks among the worst in the world for per capita greenhouse gas emissions, following the U.S. and Australia. Although Alberta accounts for only 11 per cent of the population, it contributed 36 per cent of national emissions in 2013.

The oilsands are Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and those emissions are projected to grow enough to nullify emissions reductions in other sectors and jurisdictions across the country.

“The simple fact is Alberta can’t let its emissions grow without limit,” energy minister Margaret McCuaig-Boyd said in a statement, “but we can grow our economy and our market by showing leadership, including reducing our carbon output per barrel.”

Simon Dyer, member of the new advisory group and director of the Pembina Institute in Alberta, said Alberta is finally treating oilsands environmental management and climate change “as they deserve to be treated: as serious public policy issues that need big change.” 

“I’ve been working on these issues for more than a decade and it was always traditionally framed as just a communications, PR air war,” Dyer told DeSmog Canada, adding the change in government engagement is “very welcome.”

There are still lots of issues in the oilsands that need to be resolved, Dyer said, “but they are only going to be resolved by a lot of people talking about them and the government making substantive changes.”

Alberta is playing catch up when it comes to environmental management and embracing renewable energy, Dyer said.

Earlier this week the government announced new incentives for enhanced oil and gas programs, something many in the environmental community were distressed to see. Equally distressing for some climate advocates is the province’s staunch support of building new oil export pipelines.

“I think what the government is trying to do is allay concerns they are anti-oil and gas and at the same time recognizing that a new economy is going to have to be based on renewables so we have to expand the clean economy,” Dyer said. “That’s the political reality in Alberta. It’s unfortunate but we’re behind and playing catch up.”

“That something like moving to 30 per cent renewables could be considered risky or out of step with the mainstream just shows how far behind Alberta has been and this government has to make big strides going forward,” Dyer added. “But they have to bring the rest of Alberta with them.”

For years the oilsands have faced growing civil society opposition, especially with respect to expansion, impacts on First Nations treaty rights and the construction of new or expanded oilsands export pipelines.

Adam Scott from Oil Change International said his organization is encouraged the new body  “can help start a real discussion” about Alberta’s energy resources.

Although he cautions, “there is no acceptable climate scenario where Alberta would be allowed to grow the tar sands and build new pipelines like Kinder Morgan and Energy East.”

Tim Gray, one of the 18 members of the advisory group and executive director of Environmental Defence, said Alberta — as an oil-producing jurisdiction that has an interest in building new pipelines — faces some significant challenges.

“Industry — and the Alberta government to a lesser degree — has been adamant that they want to build more pipelines and they’ve tied the completion of those to a lot of economic promises and it’s not clear if those will be achieved or not even if they did build a pipeline."

Gray said he remains unconvinced pipelines are the best strategy for Alberta and that more work needs to be done to determine if any need for new pipelines will remain once the cap put on emissions is put into place.

He said his organization remains opposed to pipeline projects like Energy East.

But, he added, he is encouraged such questions are being put to the diverse group of people that comprise the oilsands advisory group.

“I think the fact that you have organizations around the table that have very divergent views on the necessity of pipelines and what is the best way forward for an oil jurisdiction that is interesting and will make for challenging circumstances for the development of recommendations,” he told DeSmog Canada.

“But I think it shows a level of maturity by the government that they’re willing to have people with those divergent opinions and trying to work through them and bring data to bear.”

Berman said the group will begin the immediate work of creating new rules to keep oilsands emissions under the 100 megatonne cap.

“This is one of the first times in the world that an oil jurisdiction has voluntarily set a limit and we are breaking new ground,” Berman said. 

“Our goal is recommendations in the fall and then we will move on to designing reviews for cumulative impacts on water, air and biodiversity.”

“Within two years we will have made recommendations on all of those issues plus developed proposals for developing a long-term pathway on climate leadership between now and 2050.” 

For a province that has consistently failed to implement meaningful climate regulations on the oil and gas sector, the task at hand is enormous — but it's encouraging to see Alberta's willingness to bring together strange bedfellows and tackle the thorny questions head on.

Image: Suncor/Flickr

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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