Citizens on the backburner: it’s all about the oil in Alberta

VIEWPOINT-Oil-Spills-2013-07-24T20-46-59-350382

Imagine if you could run roughshod over the laws and be comfortable in the knowledge that you’d only get in trouble about one per cent of the time, and when you did, it amounted to a miniscule fine. What would you do?

You’d probably behave like the oil companies operating within Alberta.

In a recent report by Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee, and reported on by the Canadian Press, the authors sorted through thousands of government documents which they tirelessly compiled through Access to Information requests. What they compiled was a list of 9,262 environmental infractions — about 4,000 of which broke a facility’s licensing conditions — in the oilsands region since 1996. The government reaction to those 4,000 punishable incidents? They took enforcement action against 37.

According to the Canadian Press, the median fine was $4,500. For an oil company.

We’re not just talking about an employeee spilling a bit of solvent on the ground either. These incidents include leaks into the Athabasca river, the same body of water the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers insists is only contaminated by natural occurrences of bitumen. Nothing to see here folks, carry on.

The majority of the violations concerned air quality, seven per cent concerned water. One in five was due to a failure to file mandatory reports for regulation and data collection.

That last point leads to the fact that the researchers were confronted with sloppy, incomplete data from government records. The government, which insists it is watching and protecting us, doesn’t have a damn clue what’s actually happening in our biggest and most destructive industry. How do you enforce something if you don’t know what’s happening?

It’s just the latest and most blatant example of a government that doesn’t care as long as it gets a cheque, and an industry that’s all-too-willing to twist and bend and break the rules in order to pursue ever-increasing profits. It’s not hard to imagine boardrooms full of laughter at what companies can get away with in this province, and the minimal costs they must pay to do so.

Another recent incident points to the lack of knowledge, lack of care and lack of permitted citizen oversite in oilsands operations. In this case, the underground leaking from Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. operations on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.

The leaks, which are confounding regulators as well as the company, are caused by underground steam injection which melts bitumen and allows it to travel to the surface through pipes. It has been touted as a greener alternative to open-pit oilsands mines, but it also involves more water and energy.

The current leak, which was reported on June 24, is the fourth such leak attributed to CNRL to occur in the area. This is the first to affect a body of water, however. According to an article in the Globe and Mail , Alberta’s Energy Regulator — the attempt to rebrand the old regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board — says the bitumen is flowing into a slough, seeping up from underground, not leaking from pipes. Nobody is quite sure how it’s happening, or how to stop it.

It took 25 days for the regulator to tell the company to stop steaming in the area. It also took the regulator almost a month to inform the public that it had forced the company to stop steaming in another nearby lease due to three similar spills in the spring. Conveniently, the company told theCalgary Herald that it was finished with steaming in the area for the year. Thanks heavens they didn’t lose any income.

It’s not hard to see how it all comes together. It’s the classic dilemma of a government that is beholden to one industry. Sure there’s lip service paid to economic diversification from time to time, but we all know what drives this economy and what dictates government (in)action. The evidence continues to mount of a government that doesn’t care about the environment, or getting a decent payout for citizens from the companies that rent our land.

Transparency is an empty catchphrase, accountability is non-existent and the profits, at least for the companies, continue to mount. All while the government invests our money in PR spin for the industry.

How does it feel to be a second-class citizen?

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