Janet Keeping, leader, Green Party of Alberta
We are just learning that CNRL’s tarsands project at Cold Lake has been spewing bitumen for about six weeks. Worse, according to a government scientist on site, no one knows why this has happened or how to stop it. According to Greenpeace’s Mike Hudema this is not the only CNRL bitumen project gone bad this year. He says there have been four spills from CNRL tarsands operations since the beginning of the year but only now is the public learning of them.
What’s going on here? Answer – reckless industrial activity allowed to run amuck by a government and regulator that doesn’t know what they are doing. Harsh? Yes, but also accurate.
Consider this account of the regulation of an in-situ tarsands project I learned of about three years ago. I was asked to make a presentation at a conference on what ethical leadership on development of the tarsands would look like, were that goal to be taken seriously. At the same event the CEO of a then new in-situ tarsands projects was also presenting, in his case about his company’s cutting-edge technology.
Always interested in the adequacy of government oversight of the energy industry, I inquired, did he think his project was being adequately regulated by the Alberta government? Of course, he said, it was being properly regulated – that’s what the Alberta government does, isn’t it? My follow up question revealed the fly in the ointment. So how does the government regulate his company’s brand-new technology? His answer: the provincial government regulator hires people from his company to do the examination of his company’s project, and then, when that task is completed, those very people go back to work for that same company again.
So this, folks, is what it has come down to: the fox is guarding the hen-house. The very company whose proposals are supposed to be reviewed to make sure they meet government standards necessary to protect Albertans and the natural systems they depend upon is assessing whether those standards are being met. Nothing could be a more blatant conflict of interest.
It cannot be said too often: this is fake, not authentic, regulation and thus an insult to the intelligence, dignity and trusting nature of Albertans. And by making a mockery of government regulation it undermines the rule of law.
Sadly, other examples of the same are easy to come by. Recently we saw the premier claiming the tarsands tailings ponds have been shrinking when they aren’t – they’re growing in size– and the energy regulator claim it is committed to seeing them disappear when it has no plans whatsoever to enforce rules that would compel their reduction.
Further, a new report based on a study of provincial government records on environmental infractions by companies working in the tarsands shows that Alberta has enforced the applicable law in less than 1 % of those cases. As a Greenpeace posting on the report concludes “Things are not under control – the tar sands industry in Alberta is essentially regulating itself. Prosecution is lax, oversight is non-existent, incidents continue to mount and the Alberta government isn’t doing much of anything about it.”
Back to what’s happening at Cold Lake. I don’t know how this particular project got passed the regulator but, from what we now know, it looks very much as if neither the company nor the government regulator knew what they were dealing with: neither knows why the spill has occurred nor how to stop it. Approving development in the face of such ignorance is intolerable.
A government that was serious about protecting Albertans’ environment, health, and economy – for this kind of scandal can only harm efforts to sell Alberta bitumen into American markets – would not allow projects to go ahead until the regulator thoroughly understood the proposed activity and had put rules in place to prevent any unacceptable impacts. If experts have to be brought in from other jurisdictions in order that unbiased decisions can be reached on whether projects are safe to proceed, so be it. But pretending it is sufficient that companies regulate themselves is just ridiculous.
And a government that cared would actually enforce the law against companies that contravene the rules.
We don’t have a provincial government that is serious about protecting Albertans from the harms that poor performance in the energy sector can cause. But we could. One day Albertans will have had enough of this abuse and, like long-suffering victims of domestic violence, will finally decide to leave the relationship. That liberating day cannot come too soon.
This opinion piece first appeared on the Troy Media website. See