Most of Alberta's new oilsands panel have been meeting for years: co-chair

EDMONTON – Alberta’s new panel on the future of the oilsands hasn’t held its first meeting, but most of its members have already been getting together for years.

“When I first started meeting with CEOs from the oil industry to have discussions on common ground, it was two years ago,” said Tzeporah Berman, one of three co-chairs of the new Oilsands Advisory Group. “The history of this is already a couple of years old.”

Of the 15 people in the new group, Berman said about 10 of them — or the institution they represent — have been part of informal talks that began when Jim Prentice was Alberta’s premier.

Alberta’s NDP government raised eyebrows on all sides of the oilsands debate Wednesday when it appointed Berman, a prominent oilsands critic and leading figure in Canada’s environmental movement, to help map how the industry could conform to the province’s climate change strategy.

The Opposition Wildrose Party called the decision “very disappointing.” Berman acknowledged she’s heard the same, for different reasons, from her peers.

She has marched against new oilsands pipelines. One group she used to lead, ForestEthics, tried to convince Americans to stop buying oilsands-derived oil.

Now she’s talking about the importance of jobs and the need to not upset capital markets.

“I expected a pretty big backlash,” she said.

But she points out that the quiet dialogue, away from politicians and reporters, has already borne fruit. The same informal roundtable that became the nucleus of the new panel also deeply influenced the creation of the climate policy it now seeks to implement.

“When the new NDP government came in and announced they wanted to do a climate change plan, we already had a number of shared policy positions that we could bring to them. We already had principles for a strong carbon pricing system.”

Berman’s search for common ground between business and environmentalists has also brought results in other industries. She was involved in both the Clayoquot Sound agreement, which ended the so-called “war in the woods” over some old-growth forests in British Columbia, and the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, hailed as one of Canada’s largest conservation agreements.

Neither deal has been controversy-free.

But Berman insists that, at some point, you have to talk to the other guy.

“Solutions are messy and campaigns are black and white,” she said. “I stand by the idea that if you’re not working on solutions, you’re not campaigning. You’re just complaining.”

Berman has worked as a consultant for environmental foundations, advising them on which campaigns to support. That has included groups campaigning against new oilsands pipelines — something the advisory group will now consider.

She acknowledged her consultant work will have to change.

“The advisory group role is not full-time. My other co-chairs do consulting work as well,” she said. “I will not be directly working with (environmental groups) on budgets or approving or not approving grants because of this position.

“I don’t think this means there shouldn’t be campaigns and the outside protests. I think that’s why we’re here. I think that’s why government and industry have taken notice.”

But she said the original idea that brought oilsands executives and environmentalists together two years ago is worth the risk.

“I’m hopeful that people are ready for this conversation, that people are tired of the debate.”

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960