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Building thriving communities in the oil sands region

As executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance, Perry Berkenpas brings a collaborative approach to working with communities while enabling responsible growth of Canada’s oil sands.

“For the oil sands industry — now more than ever before — it’s about being competitive,” says Perry Berkenpas. “I see my role as bringing together diverse perspectives, needs and objectives to understand opportunities so the industry and the community can help and support each other.”

Perry Berkenpas joined the Oil Sands Community Alliance as executive director in November 2020.

In November 2020, Berkenpas took the role as executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA), amid a variety of challenges, including lingering impacts from the 2016 fires that ravaged Fort McMurray and other communities, major flooding earlier in 2020, a global oil price collapse, and the pandemic. 

“You could call Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region a battered community but people here are always resilient and resourceful,” he says. “A big part of my role is helping the region recover from these setbacks and finding ways to move forward.”

Berkenpas brings more than 38 years of technical, operational and business leadership to his new role. Having worked with ConocoPhillips for over 20 years, most recently as senior vice-president, oil sands, he has a deep understanding of the oil sands industry. But beyond that, he’s passionate about the potential for shared understanding and opportunities between industry and the community.

“Through my previous roles in the oil sands I’ve developed lots of community connections. My interest and passion for community involvement and co-operation has always been there. This new role is an opportunity to put that passion to work.”

He sees plenty of opportunity for dialogue and engagement within OSCA’s four major focus areas:

  • Indigenous community relations – “OSCA members and stakeholder groups have done a lot of good work to forge relationships with Indigenous communities and share benefits, but that story hasn’t been told broadly. I want to be an ambassador, working collectively to create more local opportunities for Indigenous communities but also to increase awareness about positive relationships and initiatives.”
  • Infrastructure – “Given the current economic downturn and very tight budget situations, it’s important to make the right decisions for safe and efficient infrastructure development and improvement within the region. This includes collaborating on long-term transportation planning and maintenance with an eye on industry competitiveness and finding common ground.”
  • Community wellbeing – “The industry has an ongoing role in supporting social-profit and charitable groups in addition to tourism, economic development and social needs, again being mindful of fiscal constraints. Finding the right balance means open dialogue and collaboration.”
  • Workforce – “In the immediate term, OSCA performs a liaison role between Alberta Health Services’ guidance and company pandemic protocols, including impacts to workers and oil sands operations. OSCA also helps stakeholder and municipalities’ planning, programming and budgeting based on workforce demand estimates, to ensure services from hospitals to college programs and transportation are in place to serve residents. A subset of that is working with Indigenous communities to help them understand industry needs for workers, training and skills.”

Overall, Berkenpas is a strong believer in collaboration. “Working together builds relationships and creates opportunities for shared success,” he says. “So many things have been done well in the oil sands region. We have a world-class resource and technology to develop that resource. We need a world-class approach to co-operation and collaboration to ensure the community thrives along with the industry.”

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Perry Berkenpas OSCA, Executive Director