The roster of the Alberta government's new oil sands advisory panel has sent the province's far right into conniptions.
The panel's 18 members were introduced last week. They are charged with developing ideas for Premier Rachel Notley's New Democratic Party about how to move forward with its new climate change policies. For the oil sands, that means capping emissions and determining which projects fit under the cap. It's no easy job.
The government put some high-profile environmentalists into the group along with oil industry folks, and that's got the NDP's detractors in a lather.
What's surprising about the outrage emanating from the most militant boosters of oil and pipelines is just how little confidence they appear to have in the industry's brightest minds to contribute to effective policy. That is, when there are also greenies at the table.
To say the group is diverse is an understatement. The panel is co-chaired by David Collyer, former head of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations for the Mikisew Cree First Nation, and – most galling to those on the right – Tzeporah Berman, the noted environmental campaigner formerly with Greenpeace and ForestEthics.
She had spent years opposing pipeline projects and taking shots at oil sands developers, arguing that crude should be kept in the ground. In the past week, an ill-advised and clumsy comparison of the oil sands to the fictional hellscape of Mordor from The Lord of the Rings came back to haunt her.
Her involvement on the panel has triggered a chorus of demands from anti-New Democrats, conservative pro-oil groups, the opposition Wildrose Party and provincial Progressive Conservative leadership hopeful Jason Kenney that she be sacked. Why, there's even an online petition (though, who would actually act on it is not clear).
Yet, a more crucial group of individuals not calling for her head is even more fascinating: the chief executive officers of Suncor Energy, MEG Energy, Cenovus Energy, Canadian Natural Resources, ConocoPhillips, Shell and Statoil. All of them have representatives on the advisory board.
They are not exactly amateurs when it comes to the oil sands and what the industry faces seeking new markets as the world's carbon appetite shrinks. Taken together, these companies produce over 1.3 million barrels per day of oil-sands-derived crude – more than half of the total.
Other panel members include representatives from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, site of most of the oil sands deposits; other green groups, including the Pembina Institute; and First Nations and Métis communities in the region.
The oil companies have clearly concluded that previous efforts over the years to build pipelines that would allow them to sell their crude to new markets have failed against a backdrop of rising expectations of environmental performance and regulatory quagmires.
Indeed, being at the table to help forge policies that will have major impact on their businesses is better than having to deal with surprises later on. Any shareholder would expect nothing less from these companies, with their very future as profitable, growing enterprises at stake.
The environmentalists, too, are showing new pragmatism and a willingness to move away from previously polarized battles that produced nothing but ill will.
Ms. Berman herself had numerous meetings with Suncor CEO Steve Williams behind the scenes, and said at a U.K. business conference recently – seated beside Mr. Williams – that she has changed her perspective. It's not about keeping oil in the ground as much as cutting emissions.
That's the point here.
Carbon pricing and a cap on greenhouse gases, now being put into force, provide incentives for companies to develop the technology needed to boost efficiency. In fact, under its own technological group, the oil industry had already started collaborating on the work.
It stands to reason that getting a room full of people with divergent views will boost the credibility of the results, as was the case with Ms. Notley's recent energy royalty review.
Of course, there's a large contingent hoping for it to become a dysfunctional mess. Whatever the outcome, at least the panel's varied roster is bound to provide some new thinking at a time when it's badly needed.