Documents Reveal Alberta Colludes With Industry In Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Review

A pipeline safety review conducted by the Alberta government last summer was done with the oil and gas industry’s interests in mind, according to recent documents released to Greenpeace through Freedom of Information legislation. The documents (PDF) show the review, commissioned after a series of back-to-back pipeline incidents across Alberta raised public concern, was coordinated internally between government and industry, and appears to have required industry consent.

Greenpeace campaigner Keith Stewart told the Canadian Press “there’s a difference between talking to industry and asking for their approval.”

Private communications suggest government officials worked behind the scenes to develop a review plan that would please industry.

“It looks like industry got to write the terms for this review,” said Stewart.

The review was commissioned by the Alberta government after a collective of more than 50 prominent environmental, land rights, First Nations and union representatives called upon Premier Alison Redford to initiate an independent review of the province’s pipeline safety. The groups, including the Alberta Surface Rights Group, The Council of Canadians, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace Canada also launched an anonymous oil spill tipline, urging individuals to make rupture and spill information public. The Alberta government does not make such information available on a public database.

Between May and June the pipeline industry suffered three major incidents in Alberta. The first saw 3.5 million liters of oil leaked into muskeg near Rainbow Lake. In June, a tributary of Red Deer River, which provides drinking water to many Albertan communities, was flooded with 475,000 liters of oil from an unused pipeline. Not two weeks later, more than 230,000 liters were spilled from a leaking line near Elk Lake.

In July, Energy Minister Ken Hughes announced a review of the province’s pipeline infrastructure safety would be conducted by a third party contracted by the provincial regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB).

However, documents show high-profile meetings took place with major industry players before the minister’s announcement.

Emails show Minister Hughes invited 14 pipeline CEOs, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canada’s most powerful oil and gas industry lobby group, and the Small Producers and Explorers Association of Canada.

His invitation read: “As you know, the industry operates under world-leading regulatory regime, and has a strong and improving safety record. Some recent incidents and ongoing media attention about energy and environmental issues have given us all the opportunity to reflect not just on how we ensure safety, but also on how we communicate our safety commitment. With this in mind, I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you.”

Industry representatives were given an advanced overview of the review’s structure which included pipeline integrity management, water crossing practices and emergency response.

“The meeting was very productive and we are confident we can move this forward,” said a top level official, suggesting the review was dependent on industry approval.

“Their overwhelming support for the ERCB as the regulator was good to hear and their advice for you to do a review was also reassuring.”

The private dealings between government and industry, as well as the emphasis placed on ‘communicating safety,’ suggest the pipeline review was done to ensure public appeasement, rather than pipeline integrity, says Stewart.

Stewart suggests the review was meant to align regulations with industry’s best practices, rather than inquire into industry ‘worst practices’ or the effectiveness of ERBC monitoring and enforcement schemes.

No government communications were addressed to the group of landowners and environmental organizations that pushed for the review in the first place.

This is not the first time the ERCB has been caught working to further industry interests. In August 2011, two leaked cabinet briefing notes showed the provincial regulator was collaborating with the gas industry to manage public concerns over fracking and shale gas development.

“Shale gas environmental concerns in the media and in the public in other jurisdictions are potentially problematic for energy development and environmental management in Alberta,” the note said.

CAPP approached ERCB to “enhance public communication” surrounding the issue. Critics say such industry/government coordination demonstrates the government’s commitment to shaping public opinion on behalf of the industry. Important questions of science, public safety and tough environmental regulation appear to be left at the door.

Energy Minister Hughes defended the Alberta government’s closed-door meetings with the pipeline and oil and gas industry, telling the Canadian Press “the first step in that process is to assure me in my role as minister that we are performing at the best possible level.” He added, “secondly, once we are assured that that is the case, then there is also strong communication about how we’re conducting this business in this province.”

“I called the meeting to convey a strong sense of urgency and a strong sense of reflection and investigation,” said Hughes.

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