Last August, long-time Albertan Ed Whittingham took a break from a family vacation to sit in his rental car and make a call on Skype.
Whittingham had seen a job posting in April that had intrigued him. The posting—which had been forwarded to him by a roommate from his university days—was for a position on the board of the Alberta Energy Regulator, the corporation responsible for oversight of Alberta’s energy industry.
The Skype interview went well and his application was successful, but it took longer than expected for all the paperwork to be finalized and for his appointment to be announced. It wasn’t for another seven months that he would head to his first board meeting.
That’s when the news broke.
Unbeknownst to Whittingham, the United Conservative Party (UCP) had been at work preparing a press release condemning his appointment. They took umbrage with his past work lobbying for environmentally responsible oil-sands growth and made use of an oft-repeated criticism by pointing to the countries of origin of some of the funding of his past employer, the Pembina Institute.
“It’s outrageous that the NDP government would appoint a foreign-funded, anti-oil sands, anti-pipeline activist like Mr. Whittingham to such an important government body,” then UCP MLA Jason Nixon, now Alberta minister of environment and parks, said in the press release.
When the news hit the media, Whittingham was driving from Canmore, Alberta—where he lives with his wife and family—to what would be his first, and only, board meeting at the Alberta Energy Regulator’s office in Calgary.
His friends and colleagues started to see his name in the news almost immediately.
“My phone just went apeshit,” he says.
By the time I met Whittingham—at his local gun club, tucked beneath the peaks of the Rockies—he had resigned from his post at the Alberta Energy Regulator, following a tumultuous period of being portrayed as the disgraced face of an environmental movement accused of being “anti-Alberta.”
When photographer Amber Bracken and I visit, Whittingham is in what could be called his “outdoorsy” mode—wearing a puffy vest and a pair of Carhartts. He’s got a suit and tie hanging in his car, in case he needs to make a quick change for a TV interview he’s doing later in the day. It’ll be about his twentieth media appearance of the week, he says.
He gives us a tour of the gun range, where he comes regularly to practise his marksmanship for hunting season. Whittingham is an outdoor and sports enthusiast—he’s a member of his local judo club (where he also coaches kids’ judo) and is a recreational hockey player. He hunts regularly and is an avid skier and mountain biker. “You have a very Canmore vibe,” Bracken remarks.
“I didn’t consult Vogue,” Whittingham quips.
His enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits started at a young age, when he grew up in Newmarket, Ontario, a small city with a population of about 80,000. When he was in elementary school, he remembers, things started to change in his neighbourhood. A fallow field near his childhood home—a favourite destination for adventures with his friends—was surveyed for a suburban development. His reaction at the time manifested itself in what he now describes as the mischievous behaviour of young boys—“night missions” to pull up survey stakes. “I’ll probably be called an ecoterrorist,” he says, laughing.
His motives were sincere, though he may regret his eight-year-old methods. It was an early experience in what he saw as the importance of conservation. “That was the first time I experienced ‘ecological grief,’” he says. “You really feel that grieving for losing a chunk of nature that you’re attached to.”
This early connection to natural places made it unsurprising when he decided to make his home in the Rocky Mountains. His early work was in what he jokingly refers to as “bears and bunnies conservation.”
“I was a rough-and-tumble conservation activist,” he says of his twenties in Alberta’s mountain parks. That early experience in conservation work, he tells me, made him realize how important it was to understand diverse perspectives, including those in industry.
This belief in a more pragmatic environmentalism—one that embraced myriad perspectives—led him to an MBA in international business and sustainability at York University. Whittingham had previously studied at McGill, UC Berkeley, and Sophia University in Japan (he had been an exchange student in Japan as a teenager). With his MBA under his belt, he moved back to Alberta and began working with the Pembina Institute, the organization he would eventually lead for more than six years.
In late 2010, Whittingham’s appointment as executive director of the Pembina Institute was announced under a headline that described him as “a bird-watching business guy.” That’s not the only way he’s been described in recent years.
In 2015, the New York Times dubbed him “one of the country’s most prominent environmentalists.” A 2016 profile in the Financial Post described him as an “environmental movement leader” who “understands business.” A commenter on a 2013 YouTube video that chronicled “Two Days in the Life of Environmentalist Ed Whittingham”—a video with nearly 75,000 views that followed Whittingham as he knotted his tie, met for coffee at Starbucks with a senior adviser from Conoco-Phillips, rode his bike around Calgary, and slept on a cot in his office at Pembina—noted “this guy is like the environmental Clark Kent!”
Praise for Whittingham came from within the oil-and-gas industry too. Michael Crothers, president and country chair of Shell Canada, who had regular conversations with Whittingham between 2016 and 2018, told The Narwhal by email that Whittingham “provided a balanced voice to help bridge the divide in the economy versus environment debate.”
“We worked with him the way we like to work with others outside of our sector—with the knowledge that we can accomplish more together, through dialogue and collaboration,” Crothers told The Narwhal.
Whittingham headed up Pembina’s corporate consulting arm before becoming executive director. That arm worked with large oil-sands companies, governments, and other groups to advocate for responsible fossil-fuel development.
Former Suncor executive Gordon Lambert—now interim president and CEO of the Alberta Energy Regulator—described him in 2016 as “a great listener and thoughtful contributor.” (Suncor declined The Narwhal’s request for comment and the regulator told The Narwhal by email that it “cannot comment on the work of any specific director.”)
But the UCP press release kicked off a barrage of public denunciations, Twitter tirades, and op-eds about Whittingham.
The Calgary Herald dubbed him an “enemy of Alberta’s oil and gas industry,” and his appointment was deemed “disturbing” in the opinion pages of the Calgary Sun (both newspapers now share a newsroom under the ownership of Postmedia). He was variously described by online commenters as a fox guarding the hen house, a “staunch opponent of industry,” an “avowed opponent of earth jobs…engaged in economic sabotage against earth,” and, by one angry Twitter user, as a “pretentious turd.”
Whittingham didn’t comment publicly during this period. He says the Alberta government and the regulator assured him the attention would die down. It didn’t.
It wasn’t long before the UCP’s platform was released. It included the name of just one private citizen, alongside an election promise: “Fire Ed Whittingham.”
Having his name included in the UCP platform ensured that Ed Whittingham became even more well known. “I became increasingly surprised by how much it took off and what a political punching bag I became,” he says. “I became a sound bite in stump speeches.”
Whittingham remembers meeting one of his fellow team members at the community hockey league in Canmore, where he plays at least twice a week. One of the league’s members greeted him on the ice by proclaiming, “You’re the most hated man in Alberta!” It was a joke, but Whittingham, forty-six, says the sentiment weighed heavily on his wife and kids.
Yuka Ozawa met Whittingham twenty-five years ago, in Banff. They were both staying at the same youth hostel—a spot that was likely the start for a lot of international marriages, Whittingham jokes. The couple has two children, Beck, fifteen, and Alice, twelve. Their niece, Kaela, seventeen, is also part of the family and lives with them in Canmore.
Ozawa says that twelve-year-old Alice learned about her dad’s newfound infamy in school, as her class studied current events. Her dad’s photo was featured front and centre on the CBC’s website. “I didn’t know how to deal with it,” Ozawa says of the negative attention.
Ozawa’s eyes brim with tears as she tells me about the strain of hearing the nasty comments about her husband, a man she’s been married to since 1999. “He’s not two faced,” she says. “I don’t see anything different out there or inside the house. He is who he is.”
Whittingham said he recently watched a John Oliver interview with Monica Lewinski and felt a kinship, of sorts. “Talk about someone whose life, whose identity, was completely taken away from them,” he says. “With something like this, you get the slightest surface-level understanding. Obviously, what she went through was a million times [bigger], on a global scale.”
“But when your anonymity is taken away, when you have people you don’t know saying nasty things, and when you have the premier-in-waiting saying you’re anti-Alberta…then it’s like, ‘Oh this is how it works, this is how your reputation can be taken apart’….It was a very surreal thing to go through.”
Whittingham’s work with the Pembina Institute formed the basis of the bulk of criticism against him. The organization was created in Alberta in the 1980s by residents living near the Pembina River—in the Drayton Valley area—in response to a toxic fire at a sour-gas well.
The Financial Post described the Pembina Institute as “the green group that the oilpatch can work with” in 2016. A spokesperson for Cenovus, a major Canadian oil company, told the paper in 2016 that the company had “a strong and constructive relationship with the Pembina Institute.” (Cenovus declined to make anyone available for an interview with The Narwhal, as did the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.) Pembina “collaborated with industry for decades to improve environmental practices rather than demand its demise,” according to the Financial Post. The Post didn’t stop there, noting that the organization had “deep knowledge of the [energy] business based on science, and knew its way around executive offices.”
In Alberta at least, the organization’s treatment in some media outlets has changed somewhat since then. Among the most prominent criticisms of Whittingham revolves around the Pembina Institute’s acceptance of some funding from outside of Canada during his time at the helm. Whittingham is vehemently opposed to this criticism, noting that 85 percent of Pembina’s funding is from Canadian sources. But that, he says, is beside the point. “Anyone that uses ‘foreign funded’ as a slur, as a bad thing, I find really concerning—it’s jingoistic, if not bordering on racist,” he says.
“I’m married to a foreigner,” he adds. His wife is from Japan; his parents are from England. It’s personal for him—the idea that “foreign” is necessarily negative.
On top of that, he views the foreign-funding criticism as hypocritical. “No one’s talking about trying to put national borders on the ability to seek capital—and nor would I ever suggest that. We’re living in a globalized world, and we need to bring a globalized approach to these really big-ticket challenges.”
“Climate change knows no borders,” he says.
Whittingham points out that money and capital flow across borders not just in philanthropy but in business. “To say some foreign funding is good, like for companies, but to say foreign funding is bad for an international, Canada-based organization—I just think it takes us in completely the wrong direction.”
“The fact that more people aren’t challenging that…aren’t pointing out the hypocrisy in that and how troubling it is—that, to me, has been frustrating and disturbing.”
Simon Dyer, the current executive director of the Pembina Institute, told The Narwhal that he takes issue with what he calls “spurious” criticisms about foreign funding of his organization. “Energy is a global issue. The solutions are global,” he says, noting that there is a double standard for public-interest groups when compared with industry players. “The industries that operate in Alberta and Canada have significant foreign investments.”
Dyer told The Narwhal he thinks his former colleague “was, unfortunately, a prop in an election campaign.” “It was pure politics,” he says. “It’s got nothing to do with what actually happens on the ground.”
Dyer says the Pembina Institute has long been working “in the middle,” working on solutions to issues about “both jobs and the economy and meeting our international obligations about climate change.”
“Ed was a superb executive director,” Dyer says. “He’s devoted his entire career to working on energy and environment solutions. He’s got deep relationships within the energy sector, specifically the oil-and-gas sector.”
The Alberta Energy Regulator said by email that it works “with a wide range of stakeholder groups, including the Pembina Institute. We believe that each stakeholder group can provide insight and helpful feedback to inform the work of the [regulator].”
Marlo Raynolds, former executive director of the Pembina Institute and now chief of staff for the federal minister of environment and climate change, also worked with Whittingham in the past. “As an environmental advocate, Ed is known for being pragmatic and solutions-focused,” Raynolds said, in an email, of their time working together at Pembina, noting Whittingham pushed for a “high bar for environmental performance in Alberta, while taking into account the realities of business.”
“When he was head of the Pembina Institute, he worked to find common ground between the environmental movement and the energy sector, and championed sustainability solutions that also made good business sense,” Raynolds wrote.
“He’s extremely collaborative, extremely solutions oriented,” Dyer said. “I think it’s a real loss to the Alberta Energy Regulator that they won’t have a person of Ed’s calibre and expertise supporting responsible development in the province.”