How oil industry impacts are shaping our premier’s image

Province | by Paul Dechene

photo by Gail Chin

Boom on the North Sask River to contain the oil spill

It was a prickly Brad Wall who answered media questions on July 27 about a Husky Oil spill into the North Saskatchewan River. When asked about pipeline safety, he responded:

“It’s interesting you’d ask that question,” Wall told reporters. “I first commented on this issue Friday morning last, when we were in Yukon. The very first thing I said in those comments — and I think the tape’s been sent around — is that our concern should be the response, that Husky would be responding, that government officials would be responding. In this case we need to make sure that drinking water is available.

“Secondly, I answered the question about pipeline safety and that’s the only part that got coverage, along with some attendant criticism,” said Wall. “But, hey, ‘Wall’s only talking about pipeline safety in the face of this major spill.’ So I’m a little hesitant to answer your question frankly.”

Hate to say it, but the guy has a point. His only comment to make it south from Whitehorse was a heartless sounding defence of his stance on pipelines:

“The facts remain that if we’re not moving by a pipeline, it’s going to move [by rail]. We know that rail is actually more susceptible to spills and spills are often more intense,” he was quoted in the Canadian Press on July 22, at the Meeting of the Premiers.

And that line was picked up across the country, and by all the media at home.

You have to wonder why the press was so willing to paint him as a guy who’d put pipeline projects ahead of people. Either Wall’s incapable of saying anything quotable about his government’s response to human tragedy (and I think that’s unlikely because they quote him just fine when there are floods or wildfires), or his brand has become so inextricably linked to oil-industry boosterism that no one expects to hear anything else from him.

Kind of like a Queen City Ex crowd’s response to Randy Bachman putting something from his Jazz Thing album on the playlist. “No one wants to hear you murder Summertime, Randy. Play Takin’ Care of Business’ or go back to Winnipeg.”

So pervasive this image of pipeline pimpin’ Brad, that on July 29 the Leader Post’s business writer, Bruce Johnstone, was inspired to comment on Wall’s Whitehorse remarks.

“To be fair, Wall did say that our first priority should be cleaning up the mess,” wrote Johnstone. “But Wall, a staunch proponent of pipelines, seemed to be acting more like a spokesman for the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association than a premier responding to a major spill of highly toxic bitumen and diluent into the drinking water supply for up to 70,000 Saskatchewan residents.”

That was two days after Wall took the press to task for tarring him with … well, tar sands. And yet, there’s the Leader Post’s business section telling Wall his industry ties are becoming an image problem.

Things have gotten so bad for Wall that even when he rattles off what the province is doing to prevent pipeline problems, you’re left waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Shoe: “As you know we have a pretty rigorous process in place,” said Wall at that July 27 scrum. “I want to share with you that in the last budget, we actually took away duties from those who are pipeline inspecting so that they could just focus on inspections. So we have 24 out in the field and three in Regina and Moose Jaw principally just to deal with inspections. We have requirements of companies, and in this case, Husky drives the line. They use something called the Smart Rig — that’s the technology that’s sort of internal to the process and that has to happen on a regular basis. And now it appears that all of those things were happening. All of those processes were being followed.”

Other Shoe: The Leader Post reported that the Saskatchewan Party actually cut funding to the Petroleum and Natural Gas Division by $2.7 million in the 2016-17 budget.

That’s the branch of government that enforces oil and gas development in the province.

You were saying about rigorous process, Mr Premier?

Further contributing to the general air of mistrust for Wall’s claims that his government will get tough on the industry is a Saskatchewan auditor report of 2012 that revealed how poorly resourced the government agencies in charge of overseeing the oil sector are.

“The auditor said that the ministry doesn’t have the capacity to enforce its own acts and regulations on pipelines,” says Emily Eaton, a geography professor at the University of Regina who has been researching Saskatchewan’s oil industry since 2011.

“[The industry has] been self-regulating for a long time in the province.”

Eaton is also the brains behind the website, which pulls together data on the oil industry and its impacts in Saskatchewan, and compiles the stories of people who are witnessing those impacts first hand.

For Eaton, the alarming thing about the Husky Oil spill isn’t that there was some calamitous, one-in-a-million failure behind it or that Wall’s response was somehow inadequate or ill-considered. Rather, it’s that pipeline spills and a general lack of oversight are business-as-usual for the industry.

This one only became an issue because it was upstream of Prince Albert.

“There’s been a lot of focus on environmental assessment and that this pipeline didn’t get an environmental assessment, and I just want to make the point that really almost no oil and gas infrastructure in the province undergoes an environmental impact assessment,” says Eaton.

“It’s routine practice for the Ministry of Environment to send letters to companies opining that their projects don’t qualify as developments under the Act. I think it just goes to show the free pass the industry’s been getting in the province,” she says.

“As long as we have a growing oil industry, we’re going to have growing infrastructure and more chance of spills into the future,” Eaton says. “So I think it is something that we’re going to have reckon with. It’s a real cost of the oil and gas industry. You can’t get around it. And so we should be thinking about whether those costs are acceptable to society or whether other industries, through a transition program, might reduce environmental impacts and risk.”

Unfortunately, it seems that Brad Wall has staked his reputation on avoiding that conversation at all costs.