Illustration by Mariella Villalobos.
On Thursday, June 7, approximately 475,000 litres of oil started pouring into the Red Deer River from a ruptured pipeline owned by Plains Midstream Canada. By the next day, Premier Alison Redford was on scene, eager to show she cares.
Just over a month later, a coalition of 54 groups penned an open letter to the premier demanding more than a well-timed photo op. The groups wanted the Redford government to initiate an “immediate independent provincewide review of pipeline safety in Alberta, similar to the one which was recently conducted for the auditor general of Saskatchewan’s 2012 report.”
The letter was signed by a wide array of groups including the Alberta Surface Rights Group, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, Greenpeace Canada, the Confederacy of Treaty 6 and more. By July 20, the groups had gotten their wish. Sort of. Energy Minister Ken Hughes announced that the government would conduct a pipeline review, but the signatories are upset that they have been left out of the conversation while the government consults with players in the energy sector, and they have raised concerns about the review’s effectiveness and impartiality.
Specific concerns are that the provincial regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, was put in charge of hiring a third party to conduct the review, the scope of the review is too narrow, and the month-and-a-half timeline for finishing the report is far too fast for any meaningful examination.
“There have been other reviews done, both nationally and provincially,” says Mike Hudema of Greenpeace. “Most recently by the province of Saskatchewan, and their review was done by their provincial auditor. It was a very expansive review and looked at most of the sort of wide-breadth of Saskatchewan’s pipeline infrastructure, and what came out of it was several different places that the Saskatchewan government was failing communities and their environment when it comes to pipeline safety, and then a lot of suggestions for improvement.”
Hudema doesn’t hold out much hope for the same kind of result emerging from Alberta’s review. “Unfortunately we have a lot of questions about the review process and that’s, again, one of the reasons why we wanted to meet with the premier,” he says.
To that end, the 54 groups have initiated a petition to try and force Redford and Hughes to meet with them. In just over a week the petition collected over 5,000 signatures, but the response from the government has been silence.
Don Bester, of the Alberta Surface Rights Group, which represents concerned landowners, doesn’t think that silence will be broken any time soon. “There’s a push,” he says, “but there isn’t much response.”
JUST THE FACTS
Albertans have reason to be concerned. Although most oil, gas and energy byproducts reach their destination safely, the ERCB’s latest figures still highlight the dangers.
In its 2010 Field Surveillance and Operations Branch provincial summary, the regulator says there were 687 incidents spread over Alberta’s more than 400,000 kilometres of pipeline in 2010, which resulted in 1,175 recorded “liquid releases.” In total, approximately 25 million litres of produced water (an oily byproduct of extraction) and three million litres of liquid hydrocarbons were released into the Alberta landscape.
The ERCB directed 30 pipeline operations to suspend activities in 2010. Of those shutdowns, 47.3 per cent were due to internal pipeline corrosion, followed by external corrosion at 11.2 per cent.
Of course, most Albertans don’t hear of these “incidents.” Many happen far away from urban centres and the watchful eye of media. But there were three high-profile spills this year that brought the problem to public attention and forced the government’s hand. Earlier this year, 230,000 litres of heavy crude spilled onto farmland northeast of Edmonton and 800,000 litres of oil gushed near the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Including the spill in Red Deer, these three “liquid releases” alone have let loose 1.5 million litres of oil in 2012.
Bester thinks things can be done better. The farmer, whose group includes landowners affected by the most recent Red Deer spill, says technology must be improved, particularly when it comes to river crossings. “We have people that own land right there and they’re telling us that Plains Midstream knew that this pipe was exposed and floating in the river well before the break even happened,” he says. “It was reported to them and they did nothing.”
Bester wants the current practice of lowering pipelines into river beds and fixing them in place with gravel to be replaced with new technology, including horizontal drilling far below the river bed. “I mean, they can drill a horizontal well a mile-and-a-half, you can drill your pipelines just the same as you do highway crossings,” he says. “You don’t rip up number 2 every time you want to put a pipeline across Highway 2.”
JUST THE POLITICS
Of course, the recent publicity around oil pipelines in Alberta has as much to do with pipelines that haven’t been built as it does with oil clogging up rivers and muskeg. TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline through the States and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway that will transport oilsands bitumen to the West Coast are both high-profile fights that have galvanized public opinion and focused attention on Alberta.
“The world’s watching us and we need to make sure that people know that the regulations, the standards and the processes in place are, first and foremost, meeting Albertans’ expectations, but now also national and international scrutiny,” says Mike Deising, a spokesperson for Alberta Energy. “So we want our regulator to take a look at it and we also want them to bring in an independent third party. It just makes sense.”
MLA Laurie Blakeman, who, among several other portfolios acts as the energy critic for the Alberta Liberals, agrees that pipelines are inevitable. “I’m going forward with, if it’s going to happen, how do we make it the least damaging,” she says. “How do we take steps to make sure that if something goes wrong, it’s the least amount of something going wrong; there’s the most protection for the environment and the people that are around it. That’s my point of view.”
Her other point of view is that the government isn’t fulfilling its role when it refuses to listen to all sides of a story. In this case, the 54 groups representing a broad swath of dissenting Alberta voices.
“We all live here, we all breathe this air, we all have children that we want to be able to drink the water. So, having the government divide and conquer is not helpful,” says Blakeman from her office in Edmonton.
“There’s a lot of smart people in Alberta and some of them work in these organizations. And to completely go, ‘No, I’m not going to talk to a whole bunch of smart people that have things to tell me that would be helpful’ is kind of stupid, I think.”
Nobody thinks that the government should be ignoring the oil and gas industry, at this time or any other, but it’s a familiar complaint in the province that the government’s ear is a little too attuned to the messages put out by the royalty-gushing industry.
“I do think that the public deserves some degree of input,” says Hudema. “There’s definitely, when we’re talking about pipeline spills, the environmental impacts are a huge issue…. Also, when you look at the members of the 54 groups, a lot of them are landowner groups and landowner associations, so they have first-hand experience with what a spill means to a local farmer or a local rancher, what it’s done to their property, what some of their concerns are. I think the government should hear some of those voices.”
It doesn’t appear, however, that the government will be discussing pipelines with any of these groups any time soon. The premier’s office directed all questions to Hughes’ office, and Deising says it’s now out of their hands. “With respect to the review, now it’s in the hands of the regulator and the independent party to look at the three aspects that the minister wanted to see completed as part of the review. Taking that aside, because really we’re talking about the technical expertise of water crossings, spill response and pipeline integrity, that is a specific technical expertise that is required to look at those things…. With respect to broader stakeholder discussions, we’re open to always hearing from Albertans and their perspectives.”
The signatories of the open letter to Redford aren’t happy about the ERCB playing a role in any pipeline review, insisting that it’s too close to the industry that it oversees. The process for the review allows the regulator to not only choose the third party that will review pipelines in Alberta, but also to review that third-party report and submit its own report to the energy minister with any recommendations it thinks are necessary.
According to Hudema, “they are part of Alberta’s pipeline problem and really shouldn’t be reviewing themselves.”
On September 10, the ERCB announced that it selected Group 10 Engineering of Calgary to conduct the review, citing their technical competency. In total four organizations were vying for the job, but the ERCB won’t comment on who else was in the running.
Group 10’s engineering managers, Theo Abels and Daryl Foley, both have years of experience working in the oilpatch, from regulatory compliance to technical inspections. Of course, hiring an organization with so much experience is a double-edged sword, bringing expertise on one hand, and cries of bias on the other.
According to Hudema, it’s another indication that the government isn’t serious about the review. “I think what most Albertans were expecting was a very balanced review process that would not just look at things from an industry perspective, but really from an independent perspective, and would hopefully include some of those other voices in the process,” he says.
The ERCB, by necessity a thick skinned organization, isn’t fazed.
“Someone’s going to be upset with this, no matter what we do, usually, when we make a decision, so this is no different from any other time we make a decision,” says Bob Curran, an ERCB spokesperson. “We make thousands of those every year. For us, it’s business as usual.”
Of course, business as usual is what many of the critics are, well, criticizing. They view the government, the regulator and the industry with suspicion — a closed loop bent on extracting and shipping oil and gas despite the consequences. For Bester, this review is merely window dressing and he’s not surprised. “They do not want to know. Put it that way. As long as the royalty dollars can keep flowing, they have no concerns, everything is just swept under the table.”
This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.