Pembina Institute

Passing the baton: A conversation with Pembina's incoming and outgoing oilsands directors

After five years working full-time on oilsands issues, Simon Dyer is ready for a change. Moving from his role as director of the oilsands program to a position focusing on Pembina's overall policy work, he's leaving behind the marathon of media interviews, legal hearings, research and meetings, and passing the baton to Pembina's Jennifer Grant.

I sat down with Simon and Jennifer recently to talk about lessons learned, opportunities for change and why the fight to improve environmental management in the oilsands is worth the trouble.

Jennifer, tell us about the experience you bring to this new role?

I've worked on environmental and conservation issues my entire career — I worked as a policy analyst in the oilsands program for three years before moving to the Northwest Territories in 2009 to serve as the Arctic program director. That distance has given me a national perspective of some of the issues we're facing — whether it be downstream water issues, proposed pipelines or our ability to meet our national greenhouse gas emissions targets. It's not just an Alberta issue.

Simon, what accomplishments are you most proud of during your time as oilsands director?

I'm proud of the sheer level of production our oilsands team has achieved over the past five years — we've produced some thirty-odd publications, and seen a million downloads of our materials, so obviously our work is reaching a lot of people.

Our research has enabled us to support other environmental organizations and First Nations, and we've played an essential public interest role in regulatory board hearings and in stopping projects until there is appropriate environmental assessment. I'm most proud of how we continue to advance policy solutions around oilsands development in a constructive way — the debate has become increasingly polarized, but Pembina consistently provides a balanced, science-based perspective on the issues.

After five years working on oilsands issues, where do you see the biggest opportunities for improvement?

The focus needs to move to a discussion about respecting environmental limits to protect air, land and water from contamination.

There are significant opportunities to reduce air and land pollution, improve land use planning and management, clean up toxic tailings — there's so much low-hanging fruit. That's the frustrating part. If both the federal and provincial governments would move from treating the oilsands as a communications problem to an environmental management problem, I think we'd make real progress on addressing some of the criticisms of oilsands development.

What would a typical day in your life as oilsands director look like, Simon?

Well, the kids would wake me up around 6 a.m., and at 8:05, I would get my son James on the school bus, put on a pot of coffee and get to work.

There's a lot of travel — that's partly to do with my home office location in rural Alberta, but I spend a lot of time in Edmonton, Calgary, Fort McMurray and, increasingly, Ottawa. The job involves a combination of providing strategic direction for the team, responding to media requests and reacting to issues in the news, meeting with government to discuss their policies, meeting with industry on regulatory proposals, briefing investors and visitors to Alberta on oilsands environmental impacts, lots of speaking engagements on oilsands issues, and reviewing and working on our policy reports, which form the foundation of our work. That's about it!

Working out of home, there is a temptation to work all the time, but I try to recognize that the e-mails and the work will all still be there tomorrow.

Jennifer, what do you think will be your biggest challenge in this new position?

The boreal forest once covered land now used for Suncor's oilsands mining operations in northern Alberta.This is the second-largest petroleum resource in the world, and it's the world's first major foray into high-cost unconventional oil.  A key challenge is getting past the rhetoric and starting to get into a discussion with government and industry about what responsible oilsands development looks like. Historically, the pattern has been to over commit and under deliver on a number of fronts, from wetlands protection to tailings performance.  We need meaningful action to address the impacts of oilsands development on all fronts and we need it immediately.

Simon, what has kept you motivated to fight for that kind of "meaningful action" over the years?

I love Alberta. This is my home — I immigrated here from the U.K. 14 years ago, and I care about what this place is going to be like in the future. There's a lot of media around oilsands development, but there needs to be a longer term view of what Alberta is going to look like in the years to come.

I want to see development proceed in a way that makes Alberta a place where my kids can continue to enjoy a high quality of life — I don't want them to inherit the toxic waste or the economic risks associated with oilsands activities today.

What advice do you have for the incoming oilsands director?

Don't do it! Quit now! (Laughs) Seriously, Jennifer is highly competent — she has a good grasp of the issues and she has a great sense of diplomacy, so I have no doubt she'll be excellent in this new role.

From my experience, I think it's important to celebrate successes and acknowledge where progress is being made. Education and awareness about oilsands impacts has never been higher, but the debate can get nasty and it's important not to take criticism personally and ensure that we're treating everyone with respect.

My advice would be: Keep looking for solutions. Keep the team motivated. Turn off the phone on weekends, and take time off. Delegate. Share the load. 

Jennifer, why do you care about what happens in the oilsands?

Jennifer Grant ski touring in the Rockies. This is work I believe in. I've always had an interest in environmental issues, and this presents an opportunity to create a ripple of change and influence how development proceeds. I live in the Alberta Rockies and this is where I recharge my batteries. For me, this work is about giving back to the natural environment that keeps me inspired.

What excites you most about taking on this new role?

Oilsands development is an engaging and complex issue that has environmental, social and geopolitical implications. Despite all the challenges, this role presents ongoing opportunities for learning and engagement with a variety of people — First Nations, industry, scientists, governments, the media and even artists. Everyone's paying attention to what's happening with this resource.

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