Tzeporah Berman pulls no punches to say what she really thinks about development of Alberta’s Bitumen Sands

Posted on November 15, 2017, 1:17 am
4 mins

PHOTO: Vancouver-based environmental activist Tzeporah Berman, author of a powerful attack on oilsands tailings ponds in Britain’s Guardian newspaper yesterday.

Is it possible that the Alberta NDP wishes they’d never heard the name Tzeporah Berman?

Ms. Berman is the outspoken Vancouver-based environmentalist and public advocacy tactician appointed by the Notley Government in 2016 to be Co-Chair of the Oil Sands Advisory Group.

It was an honourable and sensible effort to build consensus that would allow Alberta’s economy to continue to grow. It did not go exactly as planned.

In that role, Ms. Berman immediately became a lightning rod for Conservatives determined to attack the NDP’s social-license approach to the development of the Athabasca Bitumen Sands, which drew embarrassing attention to the fact the constant Conservative bullying of other Canadians from Ottawa and Edmonton had been a notable failure for more than a decade.

Ms. Berman is no shrinking violet – even when the NDP, I am certain, wished she would tone it down, if only just a little. Her role ended five months ago, and while she was not “let go” as some mainstream media outfits falsely claimed at the time, I’m sure there were some among the NDP’s strategic brain trust who were nevertheless relieved to see her role at an end.

In the event, media covered her departure and all but ignored the successful work of the OSAG.

The attacks on her by Conservatives were usually intemperate, frequently vicious, sometimes quite threatening, and just as often highly offensive. On one occasion, she was physically attacked in Edmonton International Airport.

Indeed, there was something about Ms. Berman that provoked a particularly ferocious reaction from the Alberta right. There were legitimate differences, even profound ones, between her views on the oilsands and those of the carbon boosters who dominate both conservative parties. But that hardly explained the intensity of their reaction. I have always suspected it was because she is a strong, outspoken, successful woman that accounted for the viciousness of the response.

Now Ms. Berman has written a powerful opinion piece in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which nowadays also has a significant international online presence, savaging Canada’s environmental record and arguing that no one, anywhere in the world, should be fooled by official Canadian efforts to slap a coat of green paint on the oilsands.

“Alberta has a new progressive majority NDP government which has made some great, long overdue strides in addressing social and environmental issues such as a coal phase-out and a cap on emissions from the tar sands,” she wrote in yesterday’s edition. “However, even under this government, the cumulative impacts of this fossil fuel development are growing and industry continues to obtain sweeping approvals that are shocking for their lack of environmental rigour.”

Tailings ponds in the region have been labelled “the largest (and most destructive) industrial project in human history,” Ms. Berman noted, calling them “Canada’s most shameful environmental secret.”

She concluded the piece: “If they are not dealt with now, tar sands tailings could become a permanent toxic legacy of the most reckless forms of 20th-century fossil fuel extraction.”

It’s hard to argue with many of Ms. Berman’s conclusions. Stand by, though, for a hysterical and ugly reaction to the Guardian article from Conservatives of all stripes, as they are bound to see this as another opportunity to vent their fury on the NDP.

23 Comments to: Tzeporah Berman pulls no punches to say what she really thinks about development of Alberta’s Bitumen Sands

  1. Philip Akin

    November 15th, 2017

    “Indeed, there was something about Ms. Berman that provoked a particularly ferocious reaction from the Alberta right.”
    And “I have always suspected it was because she is a strong, outspoken, successful woman that accounted for the viciousness of the response.”

    Is the above Alberta code for the fact that Ms. Berman is Jewish? And that is a genuine question not a snark.

    • David Climenhaga

      November 15th, 2017

      If I’d thought Ms. Berman was a victim of antisemitism, I would have said so. Certainly Alberta has a history of antisemitism in politics – the Social Credit movement in its original form was quite decidedly so, and that kind of thinking lingered among many Albertans from that era for many years. Moreover, there are certainly antisemitic attitudes in the so-called alt right now. However, I doubt many Albertans nowadays whose knickers are in a twist about what environmentalists in general and Ms. Berman in particular have to say about their tarsands are even aware of, let alone think or care about, religious background. For all their faults, it would be completely unfair and wrongheaded to accuse the UCP crowd of that. This is not to say there is no religious bigotry in this province, just that it has been transferred to another of the Abrahamic Big Three. DJC

  2. Farmer B

    November 15th, 2017

    Personally I think what Tzeporah Berman said is what most who support the NDP think. Look at Jagmeet Singh, he has clearly said there should be no more pipeline developement. Prior to the 2015 election both Premier Notley and Shannon Phillips demonstrated against oil developement. What Tzeporah said doesn’t surprise me but I am sure you are correct there will be blowback from the UCP.

    What I can’t figure out is how you go from being against oil developement and pipelines in the past and now you are one of western Canada’s strongest proponents of pipeline developement. As for the provincial budget, the one you said in the election you were going to get off of the oil revenue roller coaster, has a large deficit that will only shrink if the price of oil improves. Plus if you look at future budget projections, they depend on growth in production from the oilsands. Interesting how going from opposition to running the province changes your outlook.

    • Northern Loon

      November 16th, 2017

      Farmer, do you want your politicians to rigidly follow decades old dogma, or to adjust to the economic and scientific principles of the day? I want my politicians to be open to new and different ideas as supported by science, not adhering to outdated principles from previous centuries.

  3. Kang the barbarian

    November 15th, 2017

    Klein “put the pedal to the metal” on tar sands development creating a glut of crap oil that is not economic to export. There is no more market or demand for crappy tar sands bitumen regardless of how many pipelines you build or where they go.

    Like farmers, the PCs responded to lower prices by encouraging more tar production which lowered prices further. It is a mug’s game allowed and encouraged by Alberta’s industry-captured government.

    The NDP is simply trying to cope with this short sighted legacy while allowing the private sector to set policy. Sucking and blowing, as they are finding out, is hard.

    • Farmer X

      November 15th, 2017

      Your comment re: “crap oil that is not economic to export” deserves a rebuttal.

      First, and most obvious: if it were uneconomic then it simply would not be happening. In the new-normal market, oil sands corporations are profitable due to efforts in cost reduction, advances in technology and utilization of suitably intelligent leadership.

      Secondly, the synthetic crude oil product exported as Western Canada Select is a finely controlled blend of hydrocarbons: a known ratio of heavy, medium and light oils that distills in a known and consistent manner. Downstream refineries can accurately predict what the feedstock is going to yield and how the process will behave.

      Additionally, the percentages of heavy metals in the feedstock is also accurately presented to the refiner. This is doubly important as heavy metals such as vanadium and nickel are “catalyst-killers” and must be tightly controlled in order to manage catalyst replacement cycles where production downtime is involved.

      Refiners prefer working with a predictable feedstock; issues arise when they cannot get the volumes required to justify conversion of fractionating columns to an alternate feedstock. Frac towers et al are mechanically configured and physically operated within parameters dictated by the feedstock; refiners cannot easily switch sources.

      • Kang the barbarian

        November 16th, 2017

        Yer lost in the technical weeds Farmer X. The market for tar dissolved in solvent is very limited. Because the Klein Cons allowed too many Tar Sands plants to be built too quickly, the market for bitumen is saturated. That makes it uneconomic to build more pipelines because refiners would prefer to use ultra-cheap and high quality light sweet crude from the Middle East or even cheaper and easier to refine fracked crude from the Bakken and other nearby formations.

        No matter how many efficiencies the existing Tar plants build into their operations, only the most well established, or those upgrading their own product, will have an easy time of it. Since they are not paying we the owners a proper level of royalties, not to mention the unfunded liabilities around reclamation, it is arguable if they are really economic at all.

        Given the withdrawal of many players and the dropping of some tar plant proposals, I should think it would be obvious that people have better places to put their money than into new multi billion dollar tar sands plants in a flat oil market. Alberta would be smarter to cut our production to fit the market. But hey, dumb oil companies, and dumb farmers, both producing themselves into poverty.

        • Farmer X

          November 16th, 2017

          Synthetic crude is not “tar dissolved in solvent”. Simply put, synthetic crude oil is a blend of multiple products created by fractionation of bitumen. Once separated from the sand, heavy bitumen is heated (cracked) in a large vessel called a coker; light hydrocarbons exit the top and are both directly condensed and further separated in a tower fitted inside with trays placed at different elevations. Each elevation corresponds to a different internal temperature and pressure, enabling the efficient condensing and collection of hydrocarbons of different molecular weights.

          The 3 primary collection streams are naptha, kerosene and gas oil, which are then stored in very large tanks before being blended to match the customers order and shipped via pipeline.

          As you can see; the ‘solvent’ component (naptha) is a natural component of the bitumen and not added after the fact; only re-introduced in a controlled manner. A lower-volume/high-value separate process product, Gas Oil Side Stream, is often added to control viscosity.

          Being a consistent, pre-treated and configured product, the resultant synthetic crude oil is a very desirable feedstock; refiners would love to have a consistent, high-volume supply to justify the capital expenditure of modifying the ‘pots and pans’.

          Thus the mis-information campaigns of the environmentally-challenged: for if the pipe-lines are built, the product has a home waiting for it.

          The truly sad part is your lack of understanding of market forces: refiners very much want synthetic crude, with or without pipelines.

          As this moment, north of Highway 15 between Ft. Saskatchewan and Bruderheim, Alberta, there are several pipeline-to-rail transfer facilities under construction.

          The rail companies are more than happy to meet the demand. Being a federally regulated industry, shipments of bitumen will flow unimpeded to both coasts and the US border.

          There are no restrictions at the US border to the import and movement of bitumen, thus it will be unloaded at northern pipeline facilities and flow to the gulf refineries.

          So you, and the balance of the environmentally-challenged, are effectively raising the cost to consumers, and I can’t see that helping your cause.

  4. Sam Gunsch

    November 15th, 2017

    It should be noted that in the vast majority of published oilsands critique, including Berman’s, it is largely homegrown Alberta-sourced data and analysis used by any analyst/critic.

    A primary source is Alberta’s homegrown environmental and energy thinktank/policy group, the Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development has published numerous reports that are foundational to Berman’s arguments. (in addition to the AB Auditor General reports she cites.) And PIAD references all their stat’s sources, which are the AB regulator and the reports prepared by oilsands co’s themselves for the approval hearings.

    And if critics want to take a run at smearing/discrediting PIAD, they’ll have to ignore the fact that PIAD has participated in environmental reviews of the oilsands forever, worked directly in partnership with oilsands industry in many cases, created joint panels with oilsands players, etc. I’ve personally never read an oilsands company dispute the data and analysis of PIAD in any newspaper or magazine. In regulatory hearings, they argue with PIAD’s recommended solutions of course. But PIAD’s technical work is about as bulletproof as it comes.


    PIAD excerpt: ‘Looking at these grim facts, it’s worth asking: when will we as Albertans say enough is enough? Companies have kicked the can down the road on cleaning up their tailings for five decades now, but industry’s own forecasts indicate that the worst is still yet to come.’


    More links to PIAD’s latest writing below, which BTW arrives at significantly more bleak assessments than found in the treatment by PostMedia published this fall in PostMedia’s 50 year oilsands series. Big surprise, there, eh?



    Fifty years of oilsands equals only 0.1% of land reclaimed

    The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America

  5. Sam Gunsch

    November 15th, 2017

    Here’s some key excerpts of PIAD’s recent work about the tailings pond’s scale and extent to Albertans are exposed to oilsands clean-up liabilities.

    excerpt: ‘The sheer size and scope of Alberta’s some 20 oil sands tailings ponds is unprecedented for any industry in the world. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, one of these ponds — the Mildred Lake Settling Basin — is the world’s largest dam by volume of construction material.’

    excerpt: ‘Unlike tailings produced from conventional hard rock mining, the solids in oilsands tailings will take centuries to settle to the bottom of the ponds. As a result, it is impossible to dewater the waste for timely reclamation without significant intervention. This problem was recognized as early as 1973 by the Government of Alberta, which identified oilsands tailings as untreatable with existing technologies.’

    excerpt: ‘With tailings ponds continuing to grow on the landscape, the risk of failure poses an ever-increasing risk to communities, the environment, and taxpayers. Moreover, should the oilsands mining industry not survive accelerating global transitions toward decarbonized energy systems, Albertans must be protected from being left behind to foot the bill for enormous clean-up costs. However, less than 8 per cent of these costs is held as security by the province, leaving Albertan taxpayers exposed to a significant financial risk for tens of billions of dollars if major companies are no longer around when it’s finally time to reclaim these sites.

    Looking at these grim facts, it’s worth asking: when will we as Albertans say enough is enough? Companies have kicked the can down the road on cleaning up their tailings for five decades now, but industry’s own forecasts indicate that the worst is still yet to come.’

  6. Geoffrey Pounder

    November 15th, 2017

    “The NDP’s social-license approach to the development of the Athabasca Bitumen Sands”

    A glaring contradiction and a colossal mistake. And it’s going to backfire on the NDP.
    How does a small carbon tax (e.g., 5 cents a litre on gas) in one province buy social license for pipelines in another province?
    How does a temporary cap on oilsands emissions 43% above current levels (plus exemptions) in one province buy social license for pipelines in another province?
    How does failure to reduce emissions in one province buy social license for pipelines in another province?
    It doesn’t make sense.

    Social license comes from the citizens and communities affected by the project. Govts cannot award social license to themselves or to each other.
    The notion that a small carbon tax in one province could buy social license for pipelines in another province is absurd.

    Notley is betting that the world won’t take real action on climate change. She’s counting on int’l efforts to fail. And she’s made sure that Canada will miss its own targets by miles.
    The media merely parrot Notley’s talking points. No mainstream journalist dares challenge her preposterous pronouncements.

    Acknowledging the science but ignoring its implications is the most insidious form of climate change denial.

  7. Pogo

    November 15th, 2017

    Hey! I’m going to break the cake here! She is full of shyte! The net effect of resource extraction is willfully misrepresented. I don’t give a flying frack if that goes against dogma!

    • Death and Gravity

      November 17th, 2017

      evidence, please.

      • ogo

        November 20th, 2017

        Evidence? Would you rather have oil bought from ISIS traders powering your ships delivering your Iphones? I don’t think my old friends working in Ft MsMoney are chopping heads yet. Our oil should be the last used, not the first sequestered. And yah, I think it would be great to have fusion power, but in the meantime, dopes suckering for UBER and other “sharing economy” jobs is plainly stupid. As is Canadian oil and gas, caving to to suppliers from the middle east and Venezuela.

  8. November 16th, 2017

    The article Ms Berman wrote for the Guardian mentions 1 trillion litres of tailings pond sludge in storage. That is the same volume as a cube with sides of 1 kilometre. If you live far from the oil sands, you might feel relieved that such a big pool of poison is so far away. So consider this: If the tailings were spread in a circle 1 cm deep, deep enough to kill off all grass and ground-based insects and worms and all the useful organisms living in the ground, the diameter of that pool would be 360 km. That’s a circle that stretches from St Albert to Okotoks, from Wainwright to Brazeau.

    • Farmer X

      November 16th, 2017

      And the San Andreas fault might shift several meters and kill 10’s of millions from LA to Vancouver.

      What’s your point?

      Tailings ponds are under control and no one is walking away. They exist: deal with it.

      • Death and Gravity

        November 17th, 2017

        How dare you tell us to “deal with it”? Look at a map, why don’t you. There re enormous tailings ponds constructed practically on the banks fo the Athabasca: I’ve looked at the air photos. The track record of the Canadian mining industry does not instil confidence that no serious failures will ever occur; and if and when one does, the damage will be severe and spread far, far down stream.

        I do not believe that they are “under control”; and there’s plenty of time for walking away.

        • Farmer X

          November 17th, 2017

          There’s radiation actively leaking from damaged reactors in Japan and you’re worried about tailings ponds that “might” be an issue 50 years down the road.

          There’s 1322 toxic waste dumps in the U.S. that are hundreds of times more deadly and dangerous than the tailings ponds could ever possibly be, and you’re worried about water that workers operate boats on to service the scarecrows and, yes, pick up the dead birds.

          Perhaps your perspective needs a tune up?

          Yes we have tailings ponds. They are large, engineered structures that are heavily sensored and monitored. With your help no one will ever forget about them…

          But please get your priorities straight. Tailings ponds are a non-issue.

      • November 17th, 2017

        Hello Farmer X

        Since you ask, my point was that I did not know how big a trillion litres is. My post was my way of ‘dealing with it’, to use your phrase.

        I know very little about tailing ponds. Your post gives the impression that you are knowledgeable on that topic. So, they are not a km deep nor are they currently 1 cm deep. How deep are they?

        • Farmer X

          November 17th, 2017

          Tailings ponds are man made structures, created in mined out areas as part of both the process and reclamation processes. After the oil sand is removed there’s a big hole in the ground; the depth is a consequence of the oilsands: if the oilsands is 15m deep the pit is 15m deep, if it’s 50m deep then the pit is 50m deep. The license from mandates that all oilsands is removed prior to closing the pit, so it’s as deep as required.

          The pits are filled with process cooling water containing fine tails. Fine tails are a component of the oilsands which came from the pit in the first place. The ponds are huge by necessity: the fine tails have a natural tendency to not settle; it’s like a trillion tiny magnets pushing against each other. Time is a component of the settling process. As tailings drop out the water is drawn off at the surface and re-used as process cooling; the pits are thus a necessary storage component to assist in minimizing fresh water consumption from the Athabasca river.

          So, yes, there are tailings ponds. They are an absolutely necessary part of the oilsands process and are operated and maintained as such.

          Many, many smart minds have been working on how to accelerate the settling and reclamation process; there have been dozens if not hundreds of tests and field level trials with some success, but the technological breakthrough has been elusive.

          • November 18th, 2017

            Are people still reading? 🙂

            If a person wants to know what the problems are with tailings ponds, they need to understand why they were built and what they are used for.




            The water in tailing ponds contain fine particulate (mostly dirt and clay) in suspension and a mix of organic and inorganic compounds in solution. Not all the chemicals in the tailings, in suspension or in solution, are known; they are from the local environment and from the extraction process, and have been heated and mixed together.

            The idea of putting this mix into structures called tailing ponds is to allow separation of the *suspended* solids from the water. The water can be reused for cooling and for new tarsand separation, and so reduces demand on the Athabasca river. The solids can be dried and used to fill the open pit mines once they are exhausted.

            The tailings ponds are proportionally shallow; this maximizes the settling rate. After some settling time the top (roughly) 3m of water is clear enough for reuse, and is decanted and then the pond is topped up with new turbid water. Not just the ratio of depth to surface, but also the shallowness of the banks plays a role in the settlement process.

            Some chemicals are added to the water to improve settlement rate, and some chemicals are added to precipitate some of the known dissolved chemicals, and the precipitates become part of the solids in suspension.

            There are problems:
            -Settling takes a lot of time, and the tailing ponds are so big and so shallow to reduce that time constraint.
            -Sometimes animals come in contact with the ponds and die.
            -Occasionally a part of the perimeter earth dike fails and tailings water flows out until the dike is repaired.
            -The settling ponds are not perfectly watertight basins; some water flows with the ground water and turns up in aquifers and wells and waterways away from the tailing ponds. The water has been filtered through the ground; there are none of the original suspended solids at these remote monitoring sites. However, filtration does not remove dissolved chemicals, and these are brought out of the tailings ponds into the nearby environment with the groundwater.

            Because tarsand extraction is such a big part of all our economic lives, public discussion of tailing ponds technology is fraught with emotional trauma. This is just part of being Albertan.

  9. Farmer B

    November 16th, 2017

    I just read a very interesting article by Claudia Cattaneo in the Financial Post titled “Sickening: First Nations left empty-handed as environmentalist pressure kills B.C. Energy projects”. Now I fully appreciate that many off you will reject this invitation because you will say just more right-wing msm rubbish. What is interestingly different about this article is she interviews many indigenous leaders and their outlook on what has and is occurring in B.C. And how it is affecting their present and future. Those on the left always purport to be looking out and supporting Canada’s indigenous people’s. This compelling article shows how people like Tzeporah Berman and our Prime Minister are sentencing these people to a lifetime of poverty. I hope a few of you take the time to read it, thanks.


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