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Opposition focuses fury on Tzeporah Berman, ignores oil sands advisory group consensus recommendations … why?

Tzeporah Berman (Photo: David Climenhaga)

Do the leaders of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties and the participants in the media echo chamber that typically supports them have a substantive criticism of the recommendations of the Alberta NDP government's Oil Sands Advisory Group, or do they just like attacking Tzeporah Berman?

This is a serious question. It should be an important question for Albertans and other Canadians, regardless of their views of the merits of oil sands development, because the OSAG committee was made up of people with a range of opinions, some from industry, some from the environmental groups and some from municipalities and First Nations communities.

So someone really ought to ask Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney and the other right-wing figures who have pilloried Berman if they think the work of, for example, industry co-chair Dave Collyer, a former president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, should be treated with the same disdain as Berman's contribution has been.

The report the OSAG issued last Friday is the same work, after all. And by constantly vilifying one prominent environmentalist, these critics undermine the work of all members of the advisory group.

Collyer -- along with representatives of Cenovus Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resource Ltd., MEG Energy Corp., Statoil Canada Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc. -- agreed to the recommendations of the OSAG as much as Berman did. They produced a consensus document.

The only substance of the opposition criticism appears to be that the recommendations of the OSAG are worthless simply because of the presence of a few environmentalists, Berman in particular, on the committee.

Perhaps that is why no one from mainstream media picked up the phone and asked Collyer or the other industry experts on the committee about their thoughts on Berman's work. Their answers, after all, might not jibe with the Opposition narrative.

"I haven't even heard any criticism of the policies we all agreed on," Berman told me yesterday. "I find it deplorable that those who are vying for (political) leadership are attacking the government for trying to overcome differences and thereby create durable policy."

The opposition's approach, she said, was that "we have to agree on everything, or you're a traitor. It's sad."

The OSAG approach, by contrast, while tense at first, was after several meetings successfully collaborative. "I worked hard to build a respectful dialogue with industry. They had good people. ... I have hopes that this can be a useful example that it's possible to do this."

Industry, community and environmental representatives worked together with integrity, she said in a Facebook post on June 16, the day the government announced the end to the first two phases of the OSAG's work, and her departure from the advisory role. Some other members, including Collyer, remain.

There has been very little mainstream media reporting about the actual policies the OSAG recommended to the government.

Media emphasis has focused on Berman, who had the misfortune of becoming a lightning rod for the Alberta right wing's fury at the thought someone who does not completely share their worldview had a role in developing policy. For this, she was excoriated as an enemy of Alberta, and worse.

The closest thing to policy criticism was a June 16 piece in the Financial Post -- not available online as the Post renovates its website -- that said in passing the "punishing carbon diet proposed" by the recommendations would send operators scurrying to other jurisdictions, a contentious claim for which there is little evidence.

Being on the receiving end of the often-hysterical Opposition attacks was not pleasant for Berman. "It was vile, it was violent," she recalled from Vancouver yesterday.

After news releases published by the Wildrose and PC parties, and particularly after broadsides from the alt-right Rebel Media website, "I would get a slew of death threats, sexual threats," on social media. Comments were sometimes anti-Semitic, she added.

On one occasion, Berman said, she was physically assaulted in Edmonton Airport by a man who grabbed her, shook her, and spat in her face. She escaped into a women's washroom, then ran for the safety of the gate and her flight. "I travel in groups now in Edmonton."

So another question for Alberta's Opposition leaders might be if they consider this kind of attack on a woman travelling alone as an acceptable form of political discourse.

Many in the environmental community believe the emissions cap recommended by the OSAG is far too high, Berman added, "so I was subject to vilification from my side too."

"The sad thing is,” she said, the most vociferous right-wing groups "are playing on people's legitimate fears."

As the world transitions to a lower-carbon economy, "we need to be working together to figure out what that looks like, because we're going that way regardless.

"I have never said in 15 years on working on oil sands that it should be shut down overnight. I believe we are seeing soft oil demand globally and the highest-cost producers will be prices out of the market first.

"My goal was to help us create conversations that will help us create pathways from here to there," she said. "For families, communities, workers, we have a responsibility to develop public policies for all scenarios.”

And if we avoid the hard conversations, Berman warned, "we're not planning at all."

That may suit Alberta's Opposition of course. As history shows, it's the way Alberta conservatives operate.

Actions recommended in the OSAG report include:

  • Requiring all new facilities and expansions to use the best technology economically achievable
  • Publishing an annual forecast of greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands
  • Imposing more stringent restrictions if emissions get too close to the government's 100-megatonne annual limit
  • Penalizing companies that exceed their emissions limits

The OSAG report is not binding. Recommendations will have to be approved by the provincial government.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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