It is an unfortunate reality of oil-sands development that there will inevitably be some degree of spillage, as crude oil is transported for processing. But three spills over the past month, the latest involving 230,000 litres spilling from an Enbridge Inc. pipeline onto farmland, have raised understandable concerns about whether current infrastructure is sufficient. If those worries are not adequately addressed, important efforts by Ottawa and the province to convince other governments of the need for new pipelines – including into the United States and through British Columbia – could suffer.
To her credit, Premier Alison Redford appears to recognize the need to provide reassurance both to Albertans and to those outside the province that technical and environmental concerns are being taken seriously. After oil was recently spilled from a Plains Midstream pipeline into the Red Deer River, Ms. Redford went to some lengths to show she took the situation seriously, including quickly paying a visit to the site. This week, she expressed openness to a comprehensive review of the province's 377,000 kilometres of pipeline, instructing her energy and environment ministers to study options.
Although the recent problems fall more under Alberta's jurisdiction, the federal government should be similarly committed to ensuring that oil-sands development holds up to scrutiny. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and even more so some members of his cabinet, have at times given the impression that they consider a focus on environmental safeguards to be at odds with economic development. While there is no shame in limiting the extent to which environmental groups can drag out assessments of proposed developments, or in eliminating gratuitous overlap between federal and provincial review processes, recent decisions such as the scrapping of the National Roundtable on the Economy and Environment suggest a lack of concern about striking the right balance.
Unsurprisingly, opponents of oil-sands development are already seeking to exploit the recent bad news. The industry, and governments that support it, will only be doing those critics a favour if they are dismissive of the legitimate concerns to which the spills have added.