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After 3 pipeline spills totaling 400,000 gallons, Alberta's reputation is tarnished

Sandro ContentaGlobalPost.com
Aaron Jansen illustration

TORONTO, Canada — Three oil spills in a month isn’t the track record Alberta wanted while peddling a major tar sands pipeline to Americans.

The spills have the provincial government and the oil industry scrambling to control the damage to both the environment and their credibility.

As many as 400,000 gallons of oil have leaked in three separate incidents from the end of May to the end of June. The worst has been a pipeline rupture near Sundre in central Alberta in mid-June, when some 132,000 gallons spilled into the Red Deer River and tainted a reservoir that provides drinking water to thousands of people

The spills come as the Alberta and federal governments are lobbying for US approval of the KeystoneXL pipeline, which would transport up to 900,000 more barrels of Alberta’s tar sands oil a day to US refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Both governments are also pushing to build the Northern Gateway pipeline. That would bring tar sands oil to a proposed supertanker port on the Pacific coast of British Columbia, and from there to markets in Asia and the United States. The pipeline would be built by Enbridge, which owns a pumping station where one of the Alberta spills occurred.

The proposed pipelines already face determined opposition from environmentalists on both sides of the border. They denounce Alberta’s massive tar sands development — bitumen collected from open pit mines that destroy huge tracts of forests, produce millions of gallons of toxic sludge and increase greenhouse gas emissions — as “dirty oil.” The Alberta spills give opponents further ammunition to describe pipelines as unsafe, and government oversight as lax.

“When it comes to pipelines the question is not if they will spill but when they will spill and create the next ecological disaster,” argues Mike Hudema, of Greenpeace Canada.

Alberta’s premier, Alison Redford, is considering a safety review of the province’s almost 250,000 miles of pipelines. She insists spills are rare. But the government agency regulating Alberta’s oil industry reported 687 pipeline failures in 2010. All but 43 of them leaked either “produced water” or liquid hydrocarbons.

Credibility has taken a greater beating at the federal level, ever since the ruling Conservative government announced last December that Canada would pull out of the Kyoto international accord to fight greenhouse gases. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has since waged war against what it calls environmental “radicals.” At the Rio+20 conference in Brazil last month, environmentalists sharply criticized Canadian officials, accusing them of undermining international efforts to fight climate change.

At home, the Harper government has been accused of pandering to the oil industry with changes that speed up the approval process for pipelines, reduce the monitoring of Canada’s air and water, and cut the government emergency staff that deals with oil spills.

Perhaps most embarrassing is a report last month by the federally appointed National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an independent group of academics, environmentalists and business leaders mandated by Parliament to advise governments since 1988.

Prepared at the request of Environment Ministry Peter Kent, the report analyzed federal and provincial policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It concluded that “Canada is not on track to achieve the federal government’s 2020 reduction target of 17 percent below 2005 levels.” That lower target was adopted after it became clear Canada would fail to meet its Kyoto target of a 6 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012.

The report noted that Alberta — Canada's most populous prairie province with more than 3.6 million people — has the highest greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Moreover, Alberta’s provincial targets would see it produce more greenhouse gases in 2020 than it did in 2005. For Canada to hit its target, Alberta’s oil and gas industry must reduce its emissions, the report said.

“The analysis shows that Canada’s 2020 target is a challenging goal that will require significant and more stringent policies to drive increasingly high cost reductions,” the report said.

“A gradual process of trying to capture only the lowest cost emission reductions will not be successful,” it concluded.

The report noted that provincial policies have been far more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than federal ones. And it urged the Harper government to do more.

In May, shortly before the report was released, the Harper government announced it was abolishing the agency. In the House of Commons, Foreign Minister John Baird was blunt: the agency is being shut down, he said, because the government doesn’t like its advice on climate change.