​Pembina’s Ed Whittingham takes a conciliatory approach to help move the needle on climate

Ed Whittingham is executive director of the Pembina Institute. Image: Pembina Institute

Last fall, the Pembina Institute was front-and-centre when Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced the province’s Climate Leadership Plan. Executive director Ed Whittingham joined stakeholders that included some of the province’s oilpatch heavyweights, other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and aboriginal leaders on the stage with Notley to roll out the strategy, which happens to align with many of Pembina’s long-standing issues, such as pricing carbon, phasing out coal power, taming emissions growth from the oilsands sector, and promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency.

They are issues “near and dear to Pembina’s heart. On all those things, I think what the government did was robust and comprehensive, so I was happy to get on the stage,” says Whittingham. He calls the day of the announcement one of the most exciting he has enjoyed in his 11 years at Pembina.

“It’s a game changer and will shift the debate about the oilsands industry doing its part to address climate change,” he says. “The fact that we have environmental leaders and industry executives together on stage—these unlikely allies—shows its power, especially in light of the level of conflict we’ve seen over the last several years around Alberta’s oilsands.”

Though it won’t please everyone—and has been attacked by both sides of the fossil fuel advocate–environmentalist divide—the new strategy strikes a good balance for the province, he maintains. “This is about bending down Alberta’s emissions trajectory and hastening the peak of emissions. Yes, many people would like emissions in Alberta to peak yesterday or a long time ago. But we at Pembina are pretty realistic that, as an energy-producing jurisdiction and with big projects like oilsands projects still being built out, we are not going to peak tomorrow. But we will peak a few years from now, and I think the government has done a pretty good job for an energy-producing jurisdiction with rising emissions of hastening that peak year and then getting us on a trajectory to reductions.”

Whittingham says the province’s climate plan show the kind of influence environmental agencies can have in forming public policy when they adopt a conciliatory and constructive approach. It also illustrated a hallmark of his own approach—to play the constructive conciliator rather than the radical agitator. Whittingham, who seeks to establish common values that can be built upon through negotiation, was among those involved in consultations while the plan was being hammered out.

While the province drafted the final plan, it was informed by the public, industry, NGOs and a variety of other sectors, he says. “I was part of a journey that included a number of people from the NGO community and from industry that was really precipitated by Premier Notley’s climate ambitions and the Paris summit [COP21]. The election of Notley’s NDP government last May, her climate ambitions and the hard deadline of Paris were a great impetus for people from both sectors to get together and have discussions to try to understand each others perspectives because, at the beginning, we weren’t even speaking the same language.”

He adds, “With the oilsands emissions limit, now you have that certainty of an emissions cap and that issue is removed. It’s going to be 100 megatonnes [from 70 megatonnes today], or if they add an upgrader, 110 megatonnes, but now that takes off the table the big issue. And it still allows industry to innovate if it wants to produce more oil without producing the associated emissions.”

By bending its emissions curve, Alberta is putting itself on a trajectory that could see emissions peak soon after 2020, Whittingham says. “It might not be that much different in terms of peak year between Alberta and China. But what Alberta did in its package, I think, shows leadership for an energy-producing jurisdiction. It’s unprecedented. There is no other limit I know of on a particular pool of carbon, whether it be oil, gas or coal, anywhere else in the world, and I think that is a great precedent to build upon.”

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