Pipelines and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Good Enough

A Husky pipeline has spilled approximately 250 000 litres of oil and diluent into the North Saskatchewan River. Despite clean-up efforts and the placing of booms on the river, the spill has contaminated the water source of the small Saskatchewan cities of North Battleford and Prince Albert, forcing the affected communities to find alternate sources of drinking water for approximately 70 000 people. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall (longtime vocal supporter of oil pipelines and the fossil fuel industry in general) has called the spill and resulting water contamination “a terrible situation,” and says the provincial government wants to see a “complete restoration” of the North Saskatchewan’s ecology.

There have been several questions, fueled by discrepancies in the timeline reports filed by Husky Energy, about whether the company knew about the leak in its pipeline fourteen hours before it turned off the pressure or informed the provincial government. Husky has since claimed that though an “anomaly” was detected on the evening of Wednesday, July 20, and a crew was dispatched to investigate, a leak was not discovered until Thursday morning. Husky may be telling the truth, or they may be covering their asses, but either way, it seems that there certainly has been some failure to properly investigate and respond in a timely manner, especially when the pipeline in question runs beneath a major waterway and source of drinking water.

We also know that pipeline companies are well aware that spills are a “when”, not an “if”, scenario, as evidenced by the oil industry’s lobbying of the Harper government. An example of this is a letter sent in December 2011 to then-Minister of Environment Peter Kent and then-Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, and signed by the presidents of the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Gas Association [the letter was obtained by Greenpeace through a request filed under the Access to Information Act]. This letter is essentially a wish-list from the fossil fuel industry, requesting that the Canadian government relax environmental regulations and streamline approval of oil and gas projects (many of these requests later appeared in various pieces of omnibus legislation tabled by the Harper government). The letter minimizes the importance of avoiding environmentally harmful events, preferring to focus instead on “responsible outcomes”. The letter states:

“We believe that the basic approach embodied in existing legislation is out-dated. At the heart of most existing legislation is a philosophy of prohibiting harm; ‘environmental’ legislation is almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.”

Underlying these ten-dollar words is the basic premise that oil companies know that asking for forgiveness is easier than asking for permission, and that promising to clean up any spills that happen is more realistic than promising (and actually REALLY trying) to prevent “bad things” from occurring in the first place. And if a pipeline spills and the company doesn’t clean it up, well, shucks, they’ll try harder next time. The important thing is, the pipeline’s already there, and they’ve already won.

But let’s put all that aside for a moment. Let’s give Husky Energy the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that Husky monitored their pipeline as best they could and investigated the pressure anomaly thoroughly (though unfortunately, by their own admission, they missed the leak). Let’s assume that the pipe itself was top-of-the-line and well-maintained. Let’s assume that the booms Husky initially used to contain the spill (and which ultimately failed) are the best tools the industry has at its disposal when dealing with events such as this. Let’s assume that Husky’s promise to pay for the entirety of the clean-up is sincere. Let’s assume that Husky has done, and is doing, absolutely EVERYTHING RIGHT to achieve the “responsible outcome” that the co-signees of that Energy Frameworks Initiative letter were promoting.

The leak happened anyway. Containment didn’t work. Clean-up processes will likely be more difficult and lengthy than first thought . And in the heat of the summer, the main source of drinking water for 70 000 Saskatchewan residents (many of whom actually do support pipeline projects and the fossil fuel sector in general), has been contaminated.

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2 thoughts on “Pipelines and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Good Enough

  1. I won’t be canoeing that section of the North Saskatchewan this year. Crews are busy working along the river. I saw them working near the Front Nollet bridge today. They aren’t looking for volunteers and are asking people to stay away from the river. When I think of all the kingfishers, pelicans, ducks and geese, muskrats, and beavers I’ve seen along the river over the years it breaks my heart. I can’t imagine what 200 tonnes of crude oil has done below the surface of the water. I’m anxious, but dreading seeing for myself the results of the spill. Thanks for the synopsis of regulatory environment the industry and government have been colluding to create for the last 10, or more years.

  2. Pingback: Tankers and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Even Possible | niftynotcool

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