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Building thriving communities in the oil sands

Karim Zariffa of the Oil Sands Community Alliance knows successful, sustainable production begins by collaborating with local communities.

Karim Zariffa knows the importance of community building.

Zariffa is the executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA), an organization that strives to build strong ties between industry and communities in the oil sands region. These communities include the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), the county of Lac La Biche, and the Municipal District of Opportunity.

Karim Zariffa, executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA). Photos by Mackenzie Kormant.

“It can be an intense job,” says Zariffa. “Both the oil sands industry and the local communities in the region have gone through a lot of changes over the years. These changes have created both challenges and opportunities.”

Wildfire Recovery and Lessons Learned

Challenges like the 2016 Horse River wildfire that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray and surrounding areas, over 80,000 people.

“We know that the fire damaged entire neighbourhoods, and caused the shut-down of multiple operations for weeks. But I don’t think many people outside of the region can fully appreciate the turmoil it’s created for those who lost everything in that fire, or the long road everyone living there is on to rebuilding their homes, businesses and communities,” says Zariffa.

OSCA’s mission is to pursue innovative solutions to build thriving communities, while enabling responsible growth of Canada’s oil sands. In the case of the Horse River wildfire, OSCA spearheaded a Horse River Wildfire Industry Lessons Learned Report. The report focused on industry actions during the height of the emergency response and provides recommendations for future preparedness.

“We know that collaboration builds relationships—it creates opportunities for true dialogue with the exchange of information and ideas."

“In this report, some key recommendations, including building a world-class model of collaboration across government, industry and community—one that can strengthen the pace and quality of recovery and preparedness planning,” says Zariffa.

OSCA is just one player in the recovery effort that is being led by government, residents, local businesses and community leaders. However, OSCA is a testament to industry’s desire to be a part of a solution that not only facilitates oil and natural gas operations, but that provides possible outcomes for the people who live in the region.

“We know that the only way to ensure long-term sustainable oil and gas operations is to ensure long-term sustainable communities,” says Zariffa.

OSCA: A Collaborative Model

OSCA uses a collaborative approach, working with all stakeholders in the region including municipalities, government and industry.

“We know that collaboration builds relationships—it creates opportunities for true dialogue with the exchange of information and ideas. This dialogue can result in positive actions that lead to shared success,” says Zariffa.

As someone who has worked extensively in the area of stakeholder relations, Indigenous consultation and regulatory approvals, Zariffa knows that this involves more than words—it’s rolling up one’s sleeves, meeting face-to-face with residents, community leaders, government and Indigenous representatives.

Zariffa started his career in February 2004 when he moved from Toronto to Fort McMurray to take a position with Suncor. During his tenure with Suncor, he was seconded to the RMWB to help design and implement a municipal recycling program.

He’s lived through some of the challenges and opportunities the region has faced, including the growing pains associated with the surge in development that occurred in the early 2000s.

“Back then the issues centered on how to expand infrastructure and services for a rapidly increasing population, and how to meet the region’s significant workforce needs,” notes Zariffa. “Now, we’ve entered a new fiscal reality of lower-prices for longer. That’s changed some of the context. For example, we’re dealing with higher unemployment rates and a shift in our workforce needs.”

“However,” Zariffa adds, “While the specific issues may evolve, the underlying need for our industry to work actively and positively with the communities where we operate remains a constant.”

OSCA’s Four Priority Areas

OSCA focuses on four key areas: community wellbeing; workforce; infrastructure and Indigenous community engagement. In each area, the organization is finding ways for industry to engage community stakeholders and help create solutions for ongoing or timely issues.

On the community wellbeing front, one of the critical issues OSCA is currently working on is a transition plan that will enable municipalities in the Athabasca Oil Sands Area (AOSA) to handle changes to the Municipal Government Act (MGA). The Government of Alberta has changed the MGA to achieve a five-to-one ratio of non-residential to residential taxation. This will be a challenge for municipal governments in Alberta that are above the five to one ration. (For example, the non-residential to residential tax ratio in RMWB was 17.9:1 as of 2017).

“OSCA is working collaboratively with the RMWB on a transition plan that is sustainable, incremental and addresses the need to maintain municipal services via a long-term fiscal and budgetary strategy,” says Zariffa.

“In fact, we just developed a joint submission with the RWMB that was sent in October to the Government of Alberta. It recommends a ten-year transition plan that we think could become a model for other communities faced with the same issue.”

Other projects that OSCA is involved in include the development of population models that can help to identify changes in regional workforce requirements; collaboration with governments on initiatives to improve traffic flow along Highways 63 and 881; and an investigation into opportunities for how cogeneration could be used to provide inexpensive, made-in-Alberta electrical power to Alberta communities.

Building Thriving Communities

The challenges that arise when industry and communities coexist can be complex and wide-ranging; everything from managing noise levels and road congestion to ensuring communities are stable, safe and prosperous places to live.

“In the long-term, there’s no up-side to ignoring the concerns and needs of the communities that are impacted by operations. Instead, we see communities as true partners, and thriving communities as our ultimate goal.”

“From the industry perspective, communities are a great resource—they provide a place for workers to live and relax; they have businesses that can become key suppliers of goods and services,” says Zariffa.

“Also, working with communities is a must. The long-term sustainability of any oil sands operation relies on managing and mitigating environmental, social and economic impacts to that community, while realizing the significant opportunities a robust industry represents for that community.

“In the long-term, there’s no up-side to ignoring the concerns and needs of the communities that are impacted by operations. Instead, we see communities as true partners, and thriving communities as our ultimate goal.”

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Karim Zariffa of the Oil Sands Community Alliance
    Karim Zariffa Executive Director, Oil Sands Community Alliance