Alberta government releases long-awaited study into safety of pipelines

CALGARY – A long awaited report on pipeline safety commissioned by the Alberta government has taken an overall positive view of the province’s regulations.

But the study released Friday was quickly dismissed by critics as lacking in substance as it neither examined the effectiveness of enforcement nor drew lessons from specific spills in recent years.

The review, conducted by Group 10 Engineering, looked at rules around pipeline integrity, the safety of pipelines crossing water and spill response.

Among other things, Group 10 said regulations concerning pipelines near water need to be more consistent and clear — including a definition of what actually constitutes a water body — and urged more harmonization between government agencies both within Alberta and outside it.

But in general, Group 10 said Alberta’s regulations are strong and compare favourably with other jurisdictions it looked at.

“I’m pleased to say that the study has confirmed that Alberta leads in pipeine safety and has the most thorough overall regulatory regime of all assessed jurisdictions,” Energy Minister Ken Hughes said at a news conference.

As for the question of enforcement, Hughes said the Alberta Energy Regulator — formerly the Energy Resources Conservation Board — does a good job already.

“If pipeline companies do not comply, they will find Alberta to be a very difficult place in which to do business.”

Theo Abels, a principal at Group 10, said the report wasn’t meant to delve into the question of whether enforcement is up to snuff.

Industry players were consulted in the creation of the report, but not environmental organizations and other public interest groups. The public will, however, have the chance to give its view online during a 45-day comment period.

“I did not believe that approaching public organizations would contribute technically to the improvement of pipeline safety and I stand corrected on that one if that’s not the case,” said Abels.

Hughes announced the review more than a year ago following a spate of spills.

Group 10 submitted its work to Hughes last December, and the regulator submitted its response in March. For months, opposition politicians and other critics have been urging Hughes to make the results of the study public.

Jennifer Grant, with the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, said the review looks at regulations “on paper only.”

“It’s premature for the minister to say Alberta’s a leader in pipeline safety without an evaluation of the data on the rate of incidents, compliance, enforcement, penalties, those sorts of things,” she said.

“We really need an assessment of the real-world performance to really understand to what extent Alberta is regulating this industry and where it can improve. This report falls short on that.”

Another report earlier this year, authored by biologist and environmental consultant Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch, said fewer than one per cent of likely environmental infractions have led to any enforcement action.

Opposition politicians were also quick to criticize the report.

“It seems like there’s a whole bunch of feathers, not a lot of chicken there,” said Liberal MLA Kent Hehr.

“And by that I mean is we have 17 recommendations that have been given to the government that I don’t think go far enough in analyzing our pipeline safety in this province.”

Rachel Notley, environment critic with Alberta’s New Democrats, renewed calls for the province’s auditor general to conduct an unbiased review of pipeline safety.

“The huge gap in the report is its failure to evaluate how well the regulator enforces its own regulations,” said Notley.

“They can have all they want on paper, but if it’s never properly enforced, it’s meaningless to Albertans when they wake up to find a pool of oil in their backyard. Alison Redford’s government cannot be trusted to stand up for the health and safety of Alberta families when it comes to their friends and funders in the energy industry.”

Jason Hale, energy critic for the opposition Wildrose party, said a lot of the recommendations were “common sense” ideas that industry players would likely have thought of anyway.

“I’m not sure that we needed a year to come up with those recommendations,” he said.

The Alberta government commissioned the report last summer after a string of oil spills, including a 475,000-litre leak from a Plains Midstream Canada pipeline in Central Alberta in June 2012.

A pipeline owned by the same company spilled 4.5 million litres of oil in northwestern Alberta in April 2011. Earlier this year, the province slapped Plains with environmental charges in relation to that event.

And the pipeline spills continued in the spring of this year. An estimated 9.5 million litres of waste water leaked in northwestern Alberta from a pipeline owned by U.S. company Apache Corp.

As well, a Penn West (TSX:PWT) pipeline spilled 5,000 litres of crude and up to 600,000 litres of wastewater. And an Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB) pipeline near Fort McMurray, Alta., spilled about 200,000 litres.

Alberta has been pushing for new pipelines to be built in order to expand the market reach of the province’s crude, such as TransCanada Corp.’s (TSX:TRP) Keystone XL pipeline in the United States and Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast.

With environmental opposition threatening those controversial proposals, the province, the federal government and industry players have been seeking to assure the public that crude can be transported safely through pipelines.

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