"We have seen a shift in the energy and climate debate, but there’s still a lot to do to minimize the level of polarization and conflict." Read more from Suncor's vice president, sustainability & communications Arlene Strom:

"We have seen a shift in the energy and climate debate, but there’s still a lot to do." Learn more:

"We have seen a shift in the energy and climate debate, but there’s still a lot to do to minimize the level of polarization and conflict." Read more from Suncor's vice president, sustainability & communications Arlene Strom:

"One of the things that gives me optimism is the trust that’s been built and the muscle memory we can now apply to the next set of problems. We have seen a shift in the energy and climate debate, but there’s still a lot to do to minimize the level of polarization and conflict." Breaking barriers with Arlene Strom, vice president, sustainability & communications

A Suncor employee watches the sun set in Norway

Breaking barriers: working together

Ed Whittingham and Arlene Strom

Breaking barriers: how energy CEOs and environmental leaders worked together to support an historic climate change policy plan

A conversation with Arlene Strom, vice president, sustainability & communications, and Ed Whittingham, executive director, Pembina Institute

On November 22, 2015, the Alberta government announced a Climate Leadership Plan that included an economy-wide carbon pricing system and a cap on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the oil sands industry. In the months leading up to that announcement, a group of energy executives and environmental activists held a series of unprecedented discussions aimed at finding common ground on addressing the climate change challenge. The consensus that emerged helped inform the government’s Leadership Plan, a series of initiatives that promises to make Alberta a global leader in climate policy.

Arlene Strom and Ed Whittingham were closely involved in these discussions. We asked them to describe how the talks came about, how the participants resolved their significant differences — and how they hope to build on this momentum going forward.

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Where did the impetus for these discussions come from?

Ed: Think of where we were at the time. We were in a hyper-polarized environment. Polarized and paralyzed. Industry wasn’t getting the progress it sought and neither were climate activists. We’d all been butting heads for years and nothing was getting done. We thought if we could get energy CEOs and environmental leaders into the same room, we might just have a chance at breaking this impasse.

Arlene: One thing that was clearly different about these discussions is that the CEOs and top executives of five major companies [Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, Shell and Suncor] were involved from start to finish. They operated from a position of leadership and were determined to have a different kind of conversation.

Ed: That’s why I was willing to invest time and resources on these discussions. By my count, I’ve been part of 14 different “peace-in-our-time” dialogues on climate and energy policy related to the oil sands. This is the only one that had CEO representation. I knew I could make decisions on behalf of Pembina and that someone like [Suncor CEO] Steve Williams could do the same. So maybe there was a way to break the logjam.

What were those initial discussions like?

Arlene: The mood was surprisingly positive, but it really was a journey of exploration. We were trying to understand each other a little better. And we discovered we did have things in common. We all wanted a better future for our kids. We all knew climate change had to be addressed. We had to start with the basics.

Ed: The first meeting took place over dinner at an Italian restaurant. With these first conversations, it was about earning the right to have another conversation. I had the benefit of meeting most, if not all, of those CEOs before. Some of my colleagues [other initial participants included ForestEthics and Environmental Defence] had not. So part of it is just a case of demystification. Who are these oil and gas executives? Do they sit around a big oak table as arch-capitalists and talk about their cabal? Well, no; they are real human beings. Moreover, they exceeded expectations in terms of progressive positions on climate change. They didn’t see it as a hoax, but as a real issue. So with that first meeting, and every subsequent one, a certain level of trust began to build. And that was absolutely critical, especially when we got to the 11th hour of our discussions.

When did you start to realize you could find common ground?

Ed: I remember saying early on that, while we had a lot of issues regarding the oil sands, the crux of these talks had to be about the industry’s overall GHG footprint—and that meant putting a cap on emissions. I put that on the table and was surprised I wasn’t laughed out of the room. I began to realize that the notion of dealing with the overall GHG footprint was not beyond the realm of possibility.

Arlene: That really was a breakthrough. It started to become clear that, if we were going to agree on a carbon pricing framework, we’d have to address emissions. And I admit my initial gut reaction was there was no way could ever accept putting limits on our resource basin. But as you peel back the layers, you start to realize that, if we are truly going to address climate change, we have to contain emissions growth and, at some point, our absolute emissions need to start bending downward. And that a limit on emissions is an expression of our faith in technology and innovation.

What were some other turning points?

Ed: We made a lot of important progress on methane emissions. About 25% of global warming is due to methane and so we made it clear any pact had to include a methane reduction target. And after much back and forth, what we achieved was a very ambitious target. This set the template for what the Alberta government adopted in November, targeting a 45% reduction in methane emissions by 2025. This, in turn, became the template for action plans by the British Columbia, Canadian and United States governments. You can trace a direct line back to the conversations we had in 2015 for what is now Canada/U.S. policy and what could soon be continental policy if Mexico comes onboard. So full kudos to industry for taking this one on.

Arlene: The discussion over methane is a really good example of the give-and-take that had to occur just on the industry side during these talks. As polarized as things were between industry and environmentalists, there were a lot of competing interests within industry. We also had to learn to trust each other and we had some very difficult conversations to get to alignment. On methane, we had to be sensitive to the concerns of those on the conventional energy side who would be affected by methane reduction targets much more than Suncor. But it was a real opportunity and a very important issue for Ed and his colleagues.

While these talks proceeded, Alberta’s newly elected NDP government was developing its own climate change strategy through a public consultation process led by University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach. At what point did the two processes intersect?

Arlene: What’s important to understand is that none of this took place in a vacuum. Our discussions began even before the May 2015 provincial election. But the momentum intensified with the election of new governments in Alberta and federally, both with declared ambitions in this area. And then there was the prospect of the U.N. climate change summit in Paris in December. There were a lot of things happening that created an opportunity for this discussion at that particular time. And there was a real sense of seizing the moment.

Ed: In terms of the Leach panel, environmental groups and individual companies made their own separate public submissions. But there was a point where we quietly let the Alberta government and Dr. Leach know about the kind of discussions we were having and, especially during the important last couple of weeks, they sought us out. It’s clear our discussions had a significant impact on the policies announced, particularly on the GHG emissions cap and the methane reduction targets.

On November 22, 2015 a lot of observers were surprised to see Premier Rachel Notley announce a bold climate change strategy and to be flanked on stage not only by environmental leaders but four energy company CEOs. How did each of you feel that day?

Ed: It really was a historic tableau. What you had was a major energy producing jurisdiction announcing world-leading climate change policies and doing so with the backing of both industry and environmental leaders. It was unprecedented.

Arlene: It really was an amazing day. I was standing to the left of the stage, about three metres from Premier Notley. I grew up in Alberta and for me it was an emotional moment to think of what had been accomplished by working together towards a shared vision. I will not soon forget that day.

Some environmentalists were critical that, under the Leadership Plan, absolute GHG emissions from the oil sands will continue to rise for several years. Meanwhile, some industry people accused the companies of doing an end run. How do you each...

...respond to those criticisms?

Arlene: The emissions limit represented a compromise on all sides and you saw that play out after the Leadership Plan announcement. Some of our colleagues thought the limit was unnecessary and inappropriate. At the same time, some of Ed’s colleagues said it allowed for too much growth. Was it perfect that we didn’t hold these discussions with 15 or 25 companies at the table? Probably not. But if we were actually going to achieve a breakthrough, we knew we had to take some risk and create a safe space where we could have candid conversations, build trust and resolve longstanding disagreements. And, by definition, that can’t be done with 50 people in the room.

Ed: It was interesting to get back together in a room a few months later and compare scars. We both got called traitors. The fact both communities came back with those kinds of accusations says to me we got it right. For those detractors, especially on the environmental side, I would say this: show me another example globally where you’ve got a major pool of carbon (oil, gas and coal) and there is now this level of certainty on upstream emissions and we have a path towards reducing emissions on an absolute basis. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.

What are the biggest lessons each of you took from this experience?

Ed: The importance of trust. Also, the importance of having a catalyst, which was this policy window we knew would only be open for a certain time before slamming shut again. And the great Canadian tradition of being willing to try to see it from the other person’s side and engage in constructive “no regrets” discussions. Finally, there was the willingness to commit to a process without knowing what the outcome would be. There were times when I thought we were going to lose faith. But I know now that, if you fully commit to a process, you can end up with some great results.

Arlene: I totally agree with that. When it was darkest and you thought we’d never agree on what good climate policy looks like, the answer was to go back to the table and try again. Peel back another layer and throw out potential solutions, even if you don’t know if they will work. Also, I learned about the importance of directional leadership, which was demonstrated by all the CEOs and the environmental leaders. They showed sometimes you have to take risks and that doing nothing is not an option.

How do you see building on the momentum generated by this unique collaboration?

Ed: We still have years of work ahead of us to take the policy that was announced in November 2015 and turn it into regulations that work. So we are continuing to work amongst ourselves and with government to take this really ambitious package and implement it. I also think we’ve already served as a positive example for other jurisdictions and there are lots of opportunities to have a multiplier effect well beyond Alberta’s borders.

Arlene: I think we’ve achieved something really remarkable, but Ed is right: there’s a lot of work on the path forward. One of the things that gives me optimism is the trust that’s been built and the muscle memory we can now apply to the next set of problems. We have seen a shift in the energy and climate debate, but there’s still a lot to do to minimize the level of polarization and conflict. I think we are up for it. So stay tuned.