As crews work to mop up more than a million litres of oil that has spilled in Alberta in a month, Premier Alison Redford is steering the province toward a safety review of its 377,000 kilometres of pipeline.
Ms. Redford has charged her ministers of energy and environment to investigate whether a larger provincial response to the spills is merited. The leaks have come at an alarming pace in recent months, while the government is attempting to persuade its neighbours across Canada and the United States to accept pipelines carrying Alberta crude.
The Premier’s statement on Wednesday, two days after 230,000 litres leaked from an Enbridge pipeline system, that she is “certainly not opposed to the idea” of a more comprehensive review, is her strongest support yet for the notion.
Ms. Redford has long defended Alberta’s pipelines. The province is looking for new markets – the U.S. Gulf Coast, Asia, California, Ontario and Atlantic Canada – to sell the dramatic growth in the output of its oil sands. But wherever it has sought to place new steel into the ground, it has run up against concerns about safety from first nations in B.C., ranchers in Nebraska and farmers in Ontario.
High-profile leaks on Ms. Redford’s home turf are boosting the pressure on the Premier to act. Opposition parties are calling for more spending on inspections and a new look at regulations. Even those once close to the government say inaction is no longer an option.
“It is an issue and I think it has to be addressed,” said Ron Liepert, a former Alberta energy minister who briefly held the finance portfolio under Ms. Redford.
“What’s happened is starting to put doubt in people’s minds –whether those people are in Ontario or Alberta,” he said. “What really would be helpful is for a kind of an independent review.”
After all, Mr. Liepert pointed out, “we’ve got a lot of old pipe running underneath this province.” Forty per cent of Alberta pipeline was built before 1990.
The federal NDP is also calling attention to the leaks as the Harper government is seeking to streamline environmental regulation. The party’s finance critic faulted Ottawa for taking “a wild wild west approach to the evaluations around pipelines,” although the Conservatives have also boosted funding for inspections.
For Alberta, part of the trouble is that pressing for greater scrutiny is an acknowledgment that all is not as it should be. Saskatchewan’s auditor recently found numerous problems with pipeline oversight there, and called for better policing. Ms. Redford must balance any bid to prevent future spills against provincial reassurances that Alberta’s energy industry is overseen by a “world-class” regulatory system.
“By doing that, you’re admitting that what we’ve got right now isn’t enough,” said Bruce Cameron, president of Calgary-based polling firm Return on Insight. But, he said, there is a “huge political imperative” for “the government here to appear to be tougher and more vigilant than it is.”
Ms. Redford also faces questions about whether to make changes at the province’s oil and gas regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), which environmental groups say is too industry-friendly. It is not “a body that we can completely trust to protect our communities, our water systems and our environment,” said Mike Hudema, an Alberta-based spokesman for Greenpeace, who wants an independent pipeline inquiry.
Unlike regulators elsewhere, the ERCB does not fine companies – it employs other measures, like halting production until fixes are made – and uses unusual criteria to measure success. For example, the ERCB has defended Alberta’s pipelines as rigorously maintained, saying they experienced only 1.5 failures per 1,000 kilometres last year, down from more than five in 1990. But that doesn’t include spills at pipeline facilities. So the Enbridge spill this week at a pumping station would not be counted.
Others question the ERCB’s ability to prevent spills. The regulator conducted more than 1,700 field inspections in 2011, but that “sounds awfully low to me,” relative to the province’s lengthy network of pipeline, said Danielle Smith, leader of the Opposition Wildrose Alliance.
A key question, she said, is “do we have enough boots on the ground that are doing these inspections?” She said the current process is designed to respond to, rather than avert, spills.
“We need to do a better job on the front end of making sure we prevent problems from happening,” she said.