Tzeporah Berman and Jason Kenney

5 CEOs of Alberta’s biggest oil sands producers initiated talks with 5 ENGOs in 2015, informal group morphed into OSAG in mid-2016

Shannon Phillips says Jason Kenney erred when he claimed recently that anti-pipeline activist Tzeporah Berman was “the top advisor” to the Notley Government on the oil sands. That retort may make for juicy headlines, but the story behind the Oil Sands Advisory Group (OSAG) is much more interesting and very instructive about how Alberta oil and gas climate policy was made after the 2015 election.

Politicians, especially cabinet ministers, usually prefer euphemisms when responding to their political opponents, but the feisty Phillips pulls no punches when asked if the UCP leader’s accusation is true.

OSAG

Shannon Phillips, Alberta environment and climate change minister.

That is a lie,” the environment minister said in an interview. “It’s a convenient one that they like to tell.”

Kenney also accused the government of not admitting that appointing Berman as a co-chair of the Oil Sands Advisory Group was a mistake.

Was it a mistake?

Berman has been a lightning rod for industry anger over environmental groups’ opposition to pipeline projects like Trans Mountain Expansion. They point to the Vancouver-based activist as evidence that Notley and the NDP are far too cosy with those actively working to stifle investment and growth of the Alberta energy sector.

This column has criticized Berman on several occasions for sitting at the OSAG table to help draft oil sands policy recommendations one day, then returning home the next to be a vocal critic in BC and national media of that very industry.

But interviews with Berman, Phillips, and Dave Collyer (former CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleumn Producers and Shell Canada executive), reveal a very different story.

In this telling of the OSAG tale, the key players are the CEOs of the top five oil sands producers (Suncor, Cenovus, Shell, ConocoPhillips, CNRL), who in early 2015 decided to reach out to environmental groups and try to start a conversation about climate policy that would move beyond the polarization they believed would eventually hobble their operations.

“The pre-OSAG process really started as a group of industry leaders trying to determine whether there was a different path forward on energy and climate, particularly whether there could be support for a climate policy in Alberta that addressed the competitiveness concerns around climate policy that are an issue for industry,” said Collyer in an interview.

The CEOs reached out to five environmental groups, whose executive directors agreed to engage with Canada’s largest oil producers.

Collyer and Berman co-chaired those meetings.

OSAG

Dave Collyer.

In an interview, Berman describes her motivation for becoming involved in the discussions: “We started having these conversations because we wanted to understand as Canadians whether or not there was a path forward to understand what needed to happen to climate change in Alberta and in Albertan policy. I wanted to understand, how can these brilliant people who clearly run some of the most successful companies in the country, what did they understand about climate change? What pathway forward did they see for oil and oil policy in Alberta?”

To the surprise of both groups, they found much more common ground than expected.

That group got to the point where it could align around the key elements of a climate policy for Alberta,” said Collyer.

Berman says that everyone agreed they wanted Canada and Alberta to be prosperous. And that included everyone doing their fair share on climate.

“We all agreed that whatever solutions were found to the [policy] conflicts and to the issues, Alberta needed to have a stronger economy,” she said.

Then Rachel Notley and the NDP unexpectedly won the provincial election on May 5, 2015, partly on a platform to strengthen Alberta climate policy.

The informal group suddenly found itself with a fortuitious opportunity: an incoming government that perhaps needed policy direction and a coalition of industry and ENGOs (environmental non-government organizations) that had already arrived at a rough consensus on key issues like carbon pricing and an oil sands emissions cap.

Members of the group were delegated to approach Phillips, who says she learned of their conversations early in July.

“The Leach process (Climate Change Advisory Panel chaired by economist Andrew Leach) was chugging along on its own by this time. Through August, we did some of the public [consultation] pieces, if you’ll recall. I think those were in August and Sept. We did some indigenous consultation in Sept.,” she said.

“That was a very busy time for the whole climate conversation.”

Phillips recalls the first meeting with Collyer, Berman, and several other members of the group taking place in early Sept. in a room on the fifth floor of the Legislature.

During the course of that meeting, and subsequent ones, industry and ENGO represenatatives advanced the idea of “some sort of a group to advise government – recognizing that government was making the decisions, not the advisory group – and that from a continuity perspective and to expedite the process that a number of those same people would participate in the advisory group,” as Collyer recalls the conversation. 

Discussions continued over the winter, with the Leach panel releasing its report and recommondations for a provincial climate plan on Nov. 20, and Phillips increasingly saw the wisdom of an advisory group to help the government craft policy for the biggest emitting sector, the oil sands.

OSAG was created with a ministerial order on July 13, 2016.

Tomorrow’s column will explain how influential the pre-OSAG discussions between the oil sands CEOs and the ENGOs turned out to be, how the most controversial – and most harshly criticized – OSAG recommendations actually originated with companies, not with the government or Berman and the ENGOs, and who really insisted that Berman be appointed a co-chair.