​Pembina Institute plans to continue 'tough but fair' mandate with former Ontario environment minister at the helm

Glen Murray, former Ontario environment minister, takes over as executive director of the Pembina Institute this month. Image: Flickr/Glen Murray

Simon Dyer knows it can be crazy to read comments on the Internet, but in August, he did it anyway.

The regional director for Alberta with the Pembina Institute was interested in the response to an op-ed in the Calgary Herald about the environmental think tank’s incoming executive director, Glen Murray. The Ontario environment minister had just dropped the surprise announcement that he would leave politics to lead Pembina, taking office in September.

“Fifty percent of the comments there talk about how Pembina is a shill for industry, too close to industry, or too soft on the oil and gas industry,” Dyer says.

Pembina is not new to criticism; it can come from industry as well, around such issues as its vocal opposition to the Pacific NorthWest LNG project and its work over the years highlighting the environmental impacts of oilsands development and new export pipelines.

“I think that’s the nature of our work,” Dyer says. “Pembina is interested in solutions, and solutions involve grey areas. They involve compromise. They involve recognizing that we’re not going to get where we need to get to in one step. But I think we’re thick-skinned, and we welcome being challenged in the same way that we challenge others.”

Pembina was founded in Alberta 30 years ago as the Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development, and Dyer says that remains the organization’s mandate despite the removal of the back half of its original name.

In the last two years, Pembina has both supported and criticized aspects of oil and gas development in Canada. It’s most notable stand may have be when executive director Ed Whittingham stood onstage with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and executives from major oilsands producers in November 2015, endorsing the province’s Climate Leadership Plan.

There were those within industry who criticized the executives for supporting a plan that would cap oilsands emissions at 100 megatonnes and increase carbon pricing from $15/tonne in 2016 to $30/tonne in 2018. Pembina was criticized on the other side for working with industry.

While Dyer says Pembina was pleased to get behind the climate strategy, which it says positions Alberta as a world leader, the Pacific NorthWest LNG project was on the other end of the spectrum—before it was scrapped by Petronas this summer.

“We’re at a point now where when we’re making decisions on projects that are going to be lasting 40 or 50 years, it is important for the decision makers to demonstrate how any decision is consistent with Canada’s obligations around climate change. In the case of Pacific NorthWest LNG, that hasn’t been made,” he says.

“It’s not a matter of picking on any industry or project, but recognizing we made a commitment to reduce emissions; there will still be projects that increase emissions, but we need to demonstrate that this is part of a coherent plan that gets us to where we need to get to. In the absence of that plan, we’re obviously going to keep pointing out that this is taking us backwards.”

And it goes beyond climate impacts: Pembina also continues to raise concerns about issues including liabilities associated with oilsands tailings reclamation and caribou habitat protection.

“Industry and government is making good progress on climate policy. We would love to work with industry to legitimately address some of these other cumulative effects issues, but we don’t have time for arguing about whether these are issues or not,” Dyer says.

“Obviously oil and gas is going to remain a big part of the energy mix for a long time to come and needs to occur responsibly. We are still trying to fill this place in terms of being tough but fair and working with companies and advancing policies that ensure we have responsible development.”

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