COMMENTARY: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s pandering to environmentalists has backfired

Environmental activist Tzeporah Berman.
Environmental activist Tzeporah Berman. Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press/File

It may have seemed like a shrewd move by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley last year when she named prominent environmental activist Tzeporah Berman to the new Oil Sands Advisory Group (OSAG).

Almost a year later, though, it’s hard to see how that decision has yielded anything positive. The problem for Notley, however, is that she may be trapped in her mistake.

The OSAG was set up to advise the government on how the proposed emissions cap for the oilsands could be implemented. Berman was named co-chair, alongside a former president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, with the aim of demonstrating to Albertans that this government would listen to both sides of this issue, unlike their predecessors.

In choosing Berman specifically, it also was a signal to environmentalists that their concerns would no longer be ignored. The hope was that the payoff would come in the form of environmentalists easing up in their opposition of Alberta’s oil industry; that this new, enlightened premier could be given the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, if a prominent oilsands opponent like Tzeporah Berman could give her blessing to Notley’s approach, then that would be a huge political win for the premier.

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To be fair, Notley isn’t totally off-base in her assertion that the oilsands are suffering from a major PR problem and that meaningful policies to address carbon emissions and other environmental issues could help alleviate that. However, as much as Notley’s approach might have impressed some middle-of-the-road Albertans and Canadians (and even Prime Minister Trudeau), it’s become abundantly clear that it’s full steam ahead for the environmentalists and their anti-oilsands, anti-pipeline campaign.

READ MORE: Rachel Notley defends NDP government’s pipeline push

One of the inherent risks in Notley’s gamble was by appointing Berman to such a prominent role, it gave her additional profile and credibility. Even last year, we had some idea of Berman’s penchant for extreme rhetoric and views. She has previously compared the oilsands to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Mordor and was also a signatory to the radical Leap Manifesto — which, among other things, calls on all pipelines to be blocked and the end of fossil fuels within a generation.

Notley, of course, has fought hard within her own party to repudiate the Leap Manifesto. Moreover, Notley has tried to position herself as a champion of pipelines. Why would she want to promote those who would derail these objectives?

After all, if Alberta government thinks Berman is someone worth listening to, then why shouldn’t others think the same?

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The latest embarrassment this decision has caused for Notley involves the forthcoming B.C. election. It’s already awkward enough for the Alberta NDP to have their B.C. cousins so vocally and adamantly oppose a pipeline project (the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion) that Notley has championed. As such, Notley instructed her MLAs and other civil servants to steer clear of the election and to certainly avoid campaigning for the B.C. NDP.

READ MORE: Keystone XL reaction: Rachel Notley says Energy East, Trans Mountain pipeline expansion still needed

Berman, however, has publicly endorsed the BC NDP. She even took a shot at another prominent environmentalist, David Suzuki, for backing the BC Green Party. How much this endorsement will help the BC NDP depends entirely on how influential Berman is perceived to be. To that end, the decision to help pad her resumé could come back to bite us in a serious way.

However, this all leaves Notley in a bind. While the opposition has repeatedly called for her to fire Berman, it’s probably not that easy. For one, the damage is already done. Moreover, such a move would be seen as a slap in the face by the environmental movement, and would only ensure an even more adversarial approach.

Notley rolled the dice on a high-risk, high-reward strategy and it didn’t pan out. All is not lost, however. There’s still reason for optimism when it comes to getting new pipelines built. If nothing else, politicians who support pipelines should be under no illusions about the determination of their opponents. Notley’s blunder has at least taught us that lesson.