Ed Whittingham a champion of the new oil patch, not an ‘enemy’ of Alberta’s energy industry

Ed Whittingham with Premier Rachel Notley, left, and Environment Minister Shannon Phillips 

Notley government appointed Whittingham to board of directors of Alberta Energy Regulator

Ed Whittingham relaxed on a sofa in between sessions at the Pembina Institute’s 2018 Alberta Climate Summit last September, answering my questions about why he thinks the oil sands should be able to increase production over the next decade or two. This interview was top of mind as I read Licia’s Corbella’s character assassination masquerading as journalism in today’s Calgary Herald.

I interviewed Whittingham five times for my book, The New Alberta Advantage: Technology, policy, and the future of the oil sands. Questions about his stance toward the Alberta oil and gas industry were answered frankly and, I think, honestly. Based on those conversations, there is no doubt he is a member of what I call the “new Alberta oil patch.”

Charter members of that group are the Big 5 oil sands companies: Suncor, Cenovus, CNRL, Imperial Oil, and Husky. These producers are de-carbonizing their heavy sour crude because they believe that not far into the future, Asian markets they covet will impose carbon pricing and other climate policies on their refining and petrochemical industries. The Big 5 support the Notley government’s carbon tax, the 100 megatonne oil sands emissions cap, and the 45 per cent methane emissions reduction target as a means to reduce the carbon-intensity of their heavy crude below that of the average US crude oil.

That is an audacious goal and pretty savvy business strategy by companies that produce two-thirds of Alberta’s crude oil.

The old oil patch doesn’t share the same goals. These energy dinosaurs mostly deny climate change science, hate the carbon tax because it adds costs to their conventional production when they’re already losing money, and think that Alberta regulations are their biggest impediment to growth when the data clearly shows that lack of pipeline capacity is the culprit.

While Whittingham was executive director of the Pembina Institute from 2011 to 2017, the organization sponsored events, wrote or co-athored studies, and generally took the position that the Alberta oil and gas industry had to up its game to improve environmental performance and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Not, as Corbella alleges in her error-riddled smear, to kill the oil sands and stop the construction of pipelines to tidewater. For instance, she extensively quotes Vivian Krause, who pushes theories about Canadian opposition to pipeline projects being motivated by “protectionism” for the US oil industry.

“If you look at his record, he is not balanced towards the industry that fuels Canada’s economy. He is a very effective enemy of it,” Krause told Corbella.

This is nonsense. In fact, the documents Corbella’s column links to show Whittingham calling for stronger environmental protections or more scientific studies to clarify the impact of the oil sands or pipelines. Some enemy of the oil and gas industry, right?

Instead of talking to a non-expert and relying upon old press releases, let’s allow Whittingham to explain his positions in his own words.

“I am still a supporter of the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan and I think it will ultimately lead to a pipeline to tidewater getting built,” he told me in a December interview.

The Big 5 oil sands producers also support the Climate Leadership Plan, partly because they put the emissions cap on the table, not the Notley government. The idea of the cap came out of private meetings between oil sands CEOs and environmental groups (ENGOs) – including Whittingham – that began in the fall of 2014 and continued after the Alberta NDP won the May 5, 2015 election.

The CEOs and the ENGOs arrived at an historic quid pro quo: support for carbon pricing, emissions reductions, and the cap in return for no cap on oil sands production. This was understandably the CEOs’ greatest fear, that a new government that had run on stronger climate policy would limit – and perhaps reduce – bitumen production as the means to lowering emissions.

The “carbon for production” deal Whittingham helped hammer out with Suncor’s Steve Williams, Cenovus’ Brian Ferguson, and CNRL’s Murray Edward – all titans of the new Alberta oil patch – was accepted by Environment Minister Shannon Phillips at a September, 2015 meeting. Unlike activist Tzeporah Berman, who co-chaired the meetings and later reneged on her support for the deal, Whittingham has been resolute in his support despite ferocious backlash from many environmental groups that were not part of the discussions with the oil sands producers.

His defence of the pact is predicated on the companies innovating to take carbon out of the heavy crude oil barrel. That sounds daunting, given oil sands’ crude reputation as being “dirty oil,” but the producers are already a decade into the process and have a pipeline, as it were, of new technologies ready to implement in the field.

“Frankly, I’m no technology wizard,” Whttingham told me during a September 26, 2018 interview. “It’s not my place to say you can’t do it but it is my place to say, ‘If you can’t do it you’re not getting more emissions real estate, sorry.'”

But if the companies can do it, and all the evidence points to their new technologies being successful, then Whittingham says, “Yeah, I would love to see Alberta and Canadian companies succeed globally and be the best producer of the low-carbon barrel. If they can do that, great, the world will be their oyster. Wouldn’t it be great if the oil that is being consumed in 2030 or 2050 is produced in Alberta in a responsible way?”

Ed Whittingham is a champion of the new Alberta oil patch, the one working hard to reduce emissions and lower the carbon-intensity of its heavy crude oil in order to be competitive over the next 10 or 20 or even 50 years. He is a symbol of the new blood required within institutions like the Alberta Energy Regulator. As a member of the AER’s board of directors, he will help the industry pivot – as it must – to the emerging low-carbon future.

Labelling him an enemy of the industry is simply a scurrilous attempt to discredit the new oil patch.

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