Husky’s Saskatchewan leak fuels Energy East safety fears

Opinion | by Gillian Steward

Public hearings got underway earlier this month in Saint John, New Brunswick as part of the National Energy Board’s examination of the proposed Energy East Pipeline that will move heavy oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the East Coast.

But the timing couldn’t be worse, because across the country in Saskatchewan, oil from a ruptured pipeline has contaminated hundreds of kilometres of a major river and left thousands of people without their usual water supply.

Given that many people in eastern Canada oppose Energy East because they fear a spill will contaminate their rivers, the Saskatchewan situation clearly illustrates they do indeed have something to worry about.

Proponents of Energy East — that includes the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as TransCanada PipeLines and major oil companies — are no doubt furious with Husky Energy, the operator of the small pipeline in western Saskatchewan that leaked 200,000 to 250,000 litres of heavy oil into the North Saskatchewan River about two weeks ago.

It’s a relatively small amount of heavy oil mixed with thinning agents — it would fill about two rail tankers.

But before Husky emergency crews could stop it, an oil slick had moved more than 350 km downstream, first to the small city of North Battleford (14,000 residents) and then on to Prince Albert, a city of 35,000.

Both cities had to shut down their water treatment plants and make hasty arrangements to pipe water overland from other sources. Rural residents were left to truck in water or do without. It is still not known when water from the North Saskatchewan will be deemed safe. In total about 70,000 people are affected.

The Saskatchewan incident raises so many questions, it’s hard to keep track. For starters, why wasn’t Husky better prepared to deal with a relatively small spill from a narrow pipeline used to collect oil from wells and pipe it to an upgrader? After all, the pipeline is close to one of Canada’s major rivers.

The North Saskatchewan begins in the Columbia Icefields in Alberta, flows through Edmonton and supplies water for many communities in central Saskatchewan. It eventually makes its way into Lake Winnipeg and then Hudson Bay.

Husky is no home-grown bit player in the oilpatch. The Calgary based-company is the third largest petroleum outfit in the country. Besides having a big presence in Saskatchewan’s oilpatch, it has oilsands plants in Alberta, offshore operations on the Atlantic Coast, and has partnered with the Chinese state-owned oil company, CNOOC, to develop a deep-water natural gas project in the South China Sea.

It’s astounding that a company with such a depth of experience couldn’t detect and control a relatively minor spill before it contaminated hundreds of kilometres of a major river.

Maybe Saskatchewan’s just not close enough to home for its board of directors. Only one of Husky’s 15 directors actually lives in Saskatchewan. Most of the board resides overseas; seven directors are based in Hong Kong.

And what about Saskatchewan’s regulatory regime? Has Premier Brad Wall been so eager to court the oil industry that he has promoted a lackadaisical attitude when it comes to environmental monitoring? Emily Eaton, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Regina thinks so.

“As permissive as Alberta’s regulatory regime is, Saskatchewan’s is worse,” she said during an interview.

Eaton has been studying the environmental and social impacts of Saskatchewan’s oil economy for five years.

“There are oil spills every day that get no attention. The difference with this one is that it spilled into the North Saskatchewan River,” Eaton said.

Saskatchewan’s Auditor-General, Judy Ferguson, has come to much the same conclusion.

After the Husky spill, she chided the provincial government for implementing only two of seven recommendations regarding pipeline safety suggested by her office in 2012.

At that time, the auditor found the Ministry of Energy and Resources did not have effective ways to ensure full compliance with laws for pipeline construction and operation.

If Wall wants Canadians to support the Energy East pipeline as enthusiastically as he does, he’d be wise to clean up his own backyard first.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. This column appeared in the Toronto Star.