Tzeporah Berman’s out as Oil Sands Advisory Group delivers report, Phillips shouldn’t repeat mistake

Tzeporah Berman'

Tzeporah Berman’s membership on Oil Sands Advisory Group comes to an end…finally.

Alberta government must stop appointing fire-breathing eco-warriors to provincial advisory groups

As of June 30, Tzeporah Berman will no longer be a member of the Alberta government’s Oil Sands Advisory Group. Let’s hope Shannon Phillips has learned a lesson about the political problems that accompany appointing extreme eco-activists to Alberta government committees.

When Berman was appointed to the group a year ago, I defended her membership based on the idea that post-Paris climate accord, the international community has entered into a new consensus on energy and climate change, one that required environmentalists to sit at the table with industry representatives like her co-chair Dave Collyer, a former president of the Canadian Assoc. of Petroleum Producers.

The new consensus has two parts.

One, signatories to the accord will do everything they can to de-carbonize their economies, especially their energy systems. The Rachel Notley government is off to an admirable start in this regard with the oil sands emissions cap and the output-based allocation system, which is essentially what Berman and her colleagues were providing advice about.

Two, those same signatories will support the development and diffusion of new clean energy technologies that will eventually – my guess is by 2100, but at the very least it will be many decades – replace fossil fuels. The Alberta government has also made progress in this area, primarily with the decision to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2030 and replace that capacity with two-thirds wind and solar energy.

Not many months after Berman’s appointment, I changed my thinking and argued that she should be removed from the group.

What happened?

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Tzeporah Berman, co-chair of the Alberta Oil Sands Advisory Group. Photo: Youtube.

In British Columbia media, Berman continued being an vocal and active critic of Alberta energy objectives, particularly the construction of Kinder Morgan’s 525,000 b/d Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Burnaby, BC.

“I am committed to working in good faith with the rest of the advisory group to develop advice that ensures a strong economy and a leadership position for Alberta on environmental issues,” she wrote last July in a long defence of her decision to join the advisory group.

Good faith? Apparently not, because her vociferous attacks on pipelines – arguing Canada doesn’t need any more oil transportation capacity – a favourite talking point of Vancouver eco-warriors – flies in the face of every energy economist I’ve interviewed on the topic.

And it flies in the face of Rachel Notley and her government.

Berman and the advisory group were given the explicit task of helping the Alberta government draft regulations that would encourage oil sands producers to de-carbonize their extraction processes. In the case of in situ, that means substituting solvent for steam, and for mines that means adopting a process like paraffinic froth treatment.

The Alberta government’s strategy was explicitly to lower the carbon-intensity of oil sands crude – “taking the carbon out of the barrel” as the Canadian Assoc. of Petroleum Producers puts it – so that industry output could rise 1.5 million b/d by 2030 with no corresponding rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Tzeporah Berman

Source: Canadian Assoc. of Petroleum Producers.

Which means that 1.5 million barrels need to get to market somehow and the only economic and safe option is pipelines.

Berman was in an awkward and untenable situation from the outset: helping Alberta raise oil sands production by more than 50 per cent while working in British Columbia to deny that very same crude access to badly needed Asian markets.

It was a circle that couldn’t be squared.

Instead of admitting her mistake and firing Berman from the advisory group, Phillips brazened out the political flack from opposition parties, which criticized her and the Premier for poor judgement.

They had a point, but someone in the Minister’s office probably did the political calculations and decided the pain of publicly admitting the error and reversing course was greater than gutting it out.

Fair enough. In a few weeks that water will be under the bridge and by 2019 and the next election it will be “Tzeporah who?”

But Phillips shouldn’t repeat the mistake. Next time an energy and climate advisory group needs to be struck, the former energy analyst for the Alberta Federation of Labour should exercise more caution when she chooses a member or two from the environmental movement.

What are the chances Phillips or her boss take another wrong political step on the energy and climate file?

I wouldn’t bet against it, judging by Notley’s recent brain dead declaration that Alberta will “tell its story” in British Columbia this summer by arguing that Kinder Morgan’s legitimacy comes from the “rule of law” – meaning the National Energy Board and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, both of which are deeply unpopular among the anti-pipeline crowd – instead of the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan, the most ambitious climate policy in North American and a more natural winner in Vancouver.

If Notley can make that mistake, she can make any mistake.

Phillips’ shop has recently hired some very competent energy politics expertise with BC roots and the Minister and the Premier would do well to listen to that advice, which will certainly get the Alberta government into less hot water than appointing more Tzeporah Bermans to advisory groups.

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Posted in: Markham on Energy

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