Monday, February 28, 2011

Sharing the Road


As the Pembina Institute's sixth executive director in 25 years, Ed Whittingham believes in the organization's ability to work with industry to improve sustainability. This article appears in the February issue of Oilweek
By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Twenty years ago the Newmarket Ontario Rotary Club offered 17-year-old Ed Whittingham the opportunity to become an international exchange student for one year – a privilege reserved for young men and women who will represent their country well, and who can clearly articulate themselves and their interests. In Whittingham’s case, he could already articulate a deep concern for the environment.

Assigned to a small city in Japan, his experience was transformational. “Rotary sent me at a formative time in my life, and I came of age there. I will always be grateful for that experience. I loved the people and the culture.” He studied for a year there as an undergrad, and went back on other occasions. “I worked on an assembly line there, in a lumber yard and as a clerk in a convenience store. I also fell in love with my wife Yuka there.” Today he can communicate fluently in spoken and written Japanese, and he and Yuka have two young children – Beck (age six) and Alice (age four).

Whittingham received his BA from McGill University and an MBA in international business and corporate sustainability from York University’s celebrated Schulich School of Business. Yet virtually all his professional experience in Canada has been with not-for-profit environmental organizations.

Such is the cosmopolitan background of the Pembina Institute’s sixth executive director, who began his term on January 1st of this year, as the organization began preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary. His unusual background is appropriate, given the unusual nature of the organization he leads – an organization now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Pembina was the first environmental organization to express concern about the oilsands, back in 1986, but it has always supported the notion of oilsands development. “I think there’s a real opportunity to responsibly develop the oilsands – to develop it in a way that doesn’t impair key environmental thresholds – for example, the Athabasca River, critical air sheds, and critical habitat.” Doing all this, he says, “can and should provide healthy jobs for Albertans.” He says he opposes “command and control regulation (like that used during) the National Energy Program. It unnecessarily and unfairly destroys people’s livelihoods.” Whittingham believes a collaborative, business-friendly model “is doable. I meet with industry people a lot and I find that many of them think it’s doable, too.”

He acknowledges that these views “put us offside with some other environmental groups,” but doesn’t much care. It’s consistent with the organization’s mission to “advance sustainable energy solutions through innovative research, education, consulting and advocacy.” The organization’s vision is “a world in which our immediate and future needs are met in a manner that protects the earth’s living systems; ensures clean air, land and water; prevents dangerous climate change; and provides for a safe and just global community:” not much there to argue about.

The Pembina Institute is a unique Alberta success story. Founded in 1986 by Rob McIntosh – a high school teacher living in the rural community (population 7,000) of Drayton Valley – that small town on Alberta’s Cowboy Trail is the homeland of an organization which now employs 60 “faces” in Whittingham’s word – 50 fulltime – in offices in Vancouver, Yellowknife, Drayton Valley, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa. Pembina even has a US policy bureau in Washington, DC.

The institute focuses on four key issues. “In internal parlance we call them rocks” he says, as in the rocks upon which they build their organization. The oilsands are one rock. “Our position is one of responsible oilsands development, not shutting down development.” Another is climate change: “How can we help create a low-carbon economy?” The others are transportation – looking at lower-carbon transportation systems, an effort that includes policies on optimal community organization, for example. “We also do a lot of work around renewable energy and energy efficiency,” which together represent the fourth rock. The institute prepares policy documents, serves as an advocate and has a strong educational mandate.

There is more, however. “Every one of these rocks involves policy research and advocacy, but they also involve consulting.” And this is one of the curious features of the Pembina Institute: it is a not-for-profit organization, but only half of its revenue comes from the Pembina Foundation (chaired by Rob Macintosh, who founded the Pembina Institute) and other such organizations. “The other half comes from consulting provided by our content staff. (Our rocks) provide consulting services to federal and provincial governments, to corporate clients and to municipalities and first nations.”

Most of Pembina’s consulting staff are “passionate and talented engineers.” Since he joined the institute about six years ago, Whittingham has been the principal exception. This is not to say he isn’t passionate and talented; he just isn’t an engineer. In a self-effacing way, he says his BA stands for “bugger-all,” while his MBA is a “masters in bugger-all.”

Ask Whittingham what he’d like to accomplish during his term as executive director, and he’s pretty straightforward. Most people move on from this job after about five years. Marlo Raynolds (who just finished his term) was the exception – he was the ED for seven years. “At the end of five years I’d like to leave behind a healthy organization – that’s number one. Secondly, each year in our planning we develop a list of goals; I’d be very happy if we achieved half of our ambitious policy goals. In a broader sense, I’d like to be able to believe I had made a difference on the climate change issue” – the notion that CO2 emissions from human activity are heating up the planet. At the end of his term he’d “like to see Canada firmly on the path to making realistic cuts in CO2 emissions – cuts that are in line with the science.”

On the question of the views of climate-change sceptics, who reject much of this thinking for the first time in the interview he deviates from his characteristic mild-mannered ways. “Twelve thousand refereed journal articles support the science,” he says. He was a delegate at the global CO2 conference in Cancun late last year, where “the US Department of Defense gave a major presentation on it. Using their own science, they told us they recognize it as a problem, and they are looking for ways to protect the US from its effects.” One potential problem they identified was change in global fish stocks – a major source of protein for the world’s growing population. Another was major migrations of refugees in response to deteriorating farming in rural areas. This could have a serious impact on the US border with Mexico. Reflecting another concern addressed in that presentation Whittingham asks, “What are the military implications if melting ice in the Arctic opens up sea lanes?”

“What I would like to say to the sceptics is this: ‘Climate change is real. Get over it. It’s happening.’” He stresses again that the presenters at that session “were not dreadlocked, Birkenstock-wearing, pot-smoking pinko commie liberals. They were commanders from the American military, and they were telling us how they are planning to protect the US from the effects of climate change.”

When you walk away from a discussion with Whittingham, you have a lot to chew over. The organization is clearly committed to carbon emissions as a deep and immediate concern. But as an organization it is tremendously practical: The Pembina Institute preaches low carbon outcomes but it also teaches how to achieve them in economically sensible ways.

In print, this writer has occasionally taken exception to the institute’s facts and to its interpretations of the facts. However, there is no gainsaying the organization’s collective commitment, intelligence and talent. As importantly, the Pembina group of environmental organizations – several are now affiliated with the Pembina Foundation – in general take a practical and somewhat business friendly approach to environmental concerns.

In this 25th anniversary year it is appropriate not only to salute Whittingham as the Pembina Institute’s new executive director. It is equally appropriate to salute the organization’s founder, Rob Macintosh, who after two and a half decades is still at the wheel. Differences notwithstanding, one can only hope that Pembina’s second quarter century will be as successful – and as provocative – as the first.
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