Tzeporah Berman, with microphone.

4 years ago, oil sands CEOs and ENGOs agreed on Alberta climate policy. Today, that consensus is badly tattered

Eco-activist Tzeporah Berman is a lightning rod for controversy.  She certainly annoyed the hell out of industry and the Alberta government during and after her tenure as a co-chair of the Oil Sands Advisory Group (OSAG) because of her inflammatory criticism of the oil sands and pipelines back home in Vancouver. At issue was her opposition to continued growth of oil sands production.

Dave Collyer.

Berman and former oil and gas executive Dave Collyer co-chaired an informal group of five oil sands CEOs, and the executive directors of five environmental non-government organizations (ENGOs) who began meeting in early 2015 to see if they could find common ground on climate issues.

Those discussions eventually lead to a consensus that the oil sands companies would agree to a 100 megatonne cap on emissions in return for no limits on crude oil production growth. That consensus was eventually enshrined in the Notley government’s Climate Leadership Plan.

Interviewing Berman, one gets the impression that she was initially on board with the “carbon policy for supply expansion” deal.

“My experience is that as individuals and as organizations they [oil sands CEOs] clearly want to be addressing, positively addressing issues like climate change and pollution,” she said in an interview. 

I believe that it is quite deeply rooted in the employees, in the senior management in many of the companies that I’ve worked with.”

And in July 2016 when Berman agreed to co-chair OSAG with Collyer and Melody Lepine, representing the indigenous community, she did so in good faith.

Shannon Phillips, Alberta environment and climate change minister.

“We agreed with industry that there should be specific representatives from the environmnetal community and specific companies who were leading this discussion on OSAG and the government put forward the names and we agreed on them,” she said.

“I wouldn’t have been a good co-chair if I hadn’t looked at the make up of the table and agreed with that.”

But sometime early in her tenure on OSAG Berman changed her mind.

As she says, “the math just didn’t add up.”

“Do they [oil sands CEOs] want to be addressing these issues in a progressive way? Absolutely. Are they aligned with what it’ll take to do it and facing the reality? I think of the basic math of what it would take to keep the world climate below 2 degreesC, and Canada’s role in oil production in the future, I don’t think so. I don’t think they’re there yet,” she said.

“Overall, emissions are increasing, not decreasing, and at best, flatlining for the industry as a whole. And so, will the industry be able to decouple emissions from production and not have to reduce production in order to address climate change? The industry hopes that and certainly the leaders hope that, but I don’t think the math proves that.”

Berman ramped up her anti-oil sands and anti-pipelines activism back in Vancouver, her home base.

According to Collyer, around the OSAG table she was constructive and aquitted herself professionally: “I would declare the work at the table relatively successful in that we were able to come to substantive consensus. And Tzeporah was for the most part a constructive responsible participant at the table.”

But her activism away from the table rankled many of her fellow committee members.

“I think the more challenging part of it was the ongoing opposition to oil sands growth and particularly pipelines outside the table and the fairly frequent negative commentary regarding oil sands development,” said the former CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

“If you sign up for the climate plan, you’ve essentially signed up for [oil sands] production growth and therefore you’ve essentially signed up for new pipeline capacity within the bounds of what’s in the climate plan.”

Collyer says Bermans activism made it difficult for people in industry and government “who were trying to participate in the solution space.”

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips agrees. When asked is she was one of those in goverment who were irritated with Berman, she replies emphatically, “Absolutely!”

Dave’s assessment of her contributions is bang on, from my perspective. And Dave’s assessment of our annoyance – mine and Marg [McCuaig-Boyd, energy minister] – with her is also correct,” she said. 

Phillips acknowleges that Berman was early on a valuable contributor to changing the conversation around climate policy and the oil sands because she is connected to ENGOs across Canada.

Oil companies are full of clever people and that’s why they began their conversations with her because she was an important voice in that conversation and reasonably, as time went on, collaborative with them on finding ways out of what had become an impasse of people shouting at one another,” she said.

“What has happened since is a little bit bizarre. I find that puzzling.”

Berman points to recent CAPP studies that push back on climate policy, taking their cue from the Trump Administration and clearly offside with the direction of the Alberta and Canadian governments, as evidence that industry has retreated from its earlier commitment to more aggressive climate mitigation.

“From a political perspective, I think they’re playing both sides of the fence. I think they want the market to see that they are addressing climate change and that they’re responsible,” she says, arguing that the oil sands CEOs appear to be most interested in bolstering their stock price by appearing to support climate initiatives. 

“Those five companies haven’t clearly articulated their differences from CAPP. They’re a part of CAPP and CAPP is attacking those same policies. So, I think those five companies should let the world know where they stand.”

Berman says the oil sands producers appear to have done the calculations and concluded they would be better off under a climate policy-phobic premier like Jason Kenney.

“They’ve gone quiet as we get closer to the [May 2019] election. I find that disheartening,” she said.

Phillips isn’t as disheartened as Berman. The environment minister notes that political support for public policy ebbs and flows, but “Nobody is banging down my door on the oil sands emissions limit.”

Collyer argues that the flood of climate policy and regulations from both Alberta and Ottawa has oil and gas companies concerned about cost and competitiveness issues, which explains industry pushback of late.

Berman’s retreat to anti-pipeline activism appears to be the flipside to industry’s current reticence and a tacit admission that the consensus that was forged almost four years ago has come unravelled.

Someone needs to knit it back together because everyone in this story thinks more was accomplished on energy and climate policy when CEOs and ENGO executive directors could find common ground.