By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via Facebook.

It was late in the evening when operators from Husky Energy noted “pressure anomalies” in the nineteen year old line running across Saskatchewan as part of its Saskatchewan Gathering System which transports heavy crude oil to Lloydminster. “Segments of the pipeline system were being returned to service,” Husky notes, as apart of the pipeline’s latest expansion project, when the anomalies were detected. Indeed, “the pipeline was shut down in conjunction with work we are doing to expand our Saskatchewan Gathering System,” the company explains via email. A team was dispatched to find any possible leaks near Maidstone, but at that time, no leaks were found.

As the sun rose, crews and aerial surveillance took advantage of the daylight to scour the riverside for issues. There they reported an oily ‘sheen’ on the North Saskatchewan River; as a precaution, the pipeline went into shutdown, now a whole ten hours after anomalies were first detected. It wasn’t until another four hours had passed when crews found the source of their problems, confirming a leak in the line – thirty minutes after that, the Ministry of Environment was notified by Husky Energy of a leak – now fourteen hours after anomalies had first been detected and after some 1,500 barrels of crude oil made its way into the North Saskatchewan River. The plume has since traveled approx. 500 km down river, with crews focused on cleaning up a 20 km stretch nearest to the leak.

Cities, including North Battleford, Prince Albert and Melfort, cut off their water intake promptly, putting an advisory in effect that’s left the cities looking for desperate solutions to their water shortage problems in the meantime. Presently, these advisories are expected to stay in effect in Prince Albert and North Battleford for several months.

As the oil mixes with the sediment, settling into the river, the environmental risks grow and the more enduring the problem becomes. Wildlife could face significant harm from the spill; indeed they already have. As of July 30, fourteen animals have been found dead. CBC News reports the birds are being brought to a triage center near Maidstone – some, blue herons, geese, sparrows – all of them smothered in thick, “bitumen-like” oil. The birds, living Canadiana, have been virtually reduced to asphalt by the contamination and face a brutal road ahead of them to recover. Dehydrated and starved, the birds have to first be nourished with food and fluids before being bathed in mineral oil and soaked down.

Rightly so, the tragedy, with deep ecological consequences, has First Nations groups, some local, others provincial and national, expressing their concerns for wildlife and the effect the spill may have on trapping and hunting. Muskoday First Nation has also declared a state of emergency, citing the water shortage – as have Prince Albert’s city council.

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Oil on the North Saskatchewan river near Maidstone. 22/07/2016. (Photo: Jason Franson, CP)

Easily mistaken at this point for a bitumen-tarred basket case himself, Premier Brad Wall appears to be stumbling through the apparent fallout with shots of ketamine before each media appearance, when he is available for comment that is.

Wall’s been in put in the awkward position of being the country’s foremost cheerleader for big oil in Canada in a province now trying to relocate clean drinking water to its cities. Wall, somewhat of a modern day hero among Conservatives, has regularly championed the need for coddling the west’s oil and gas industry with a steady stream of healthy subsidies, weaker review processes and zealous allegiance. He’s the same man who once asked the federal government with a straight face for $156M of public money to clean up oil wells orphaned by insolvent companies, but now he’s telling citizens of Saskatchewan (again with a straight face) he expects Husky Energy to reimburse the various cities affected fairly.

In doing so, the premier has found himself caught in an oil slick of his own making – unable to play both ‘bad cop’ and ‘good cop’ without looking patently ridiculous – Wall is facing the uncomfortable possibility this week that he cannot be the unbridled champion of both his province and big business. Sometimes you have to choose who to put first.

Tone deaf to his own province’s anxieties, Wall has outright said “now’s not the time” to discuss pipeline politics in wake of this emergency. We can assume it’ll be ‘time’ to discuss regulations when oil isn’t running downstream through his province’s backyard and his constituents won’t cack on his bullshit, if not the bitumen. Indeed, the good premier seems almost confused, properly frazzled by the alien notion of reviewing the oil industry independently. While Environment Canada arrived on scene almost immediately to conduct a review to determine if Husky Energy has contravened federal environmental and wildlife legislation, Brad Wall seemingly spent all of five minutes and a stick of gum conducting his own royal commission to conclude quite thoroughly that ‘eh, it is what it is.’

“I can’t put my finger on some egregious error or misjudgment that I would say they made or that officials are telling me they made,” Wall said, doing an outstanding Winnie the Pooh impression that would have only have been bettered if he had closed his eyes and waved his finger around aimlessly at the reporters for dramatic effect.

But of course there were errors, there were misjudgments that anyone fairly reviewing the situation might find – the premier simply hasn’t shown any interest in turning a new page or contemplating an energy company could be at fault for something more than an accident for which they’re ‘well prepared’. For starters, Husky Energy waited at least ten hours to shutdown the pipeline. The anomalies detected were significant enough to send a crew to visit the site, they were significant enough to warrant an aerial surveillance team be dispatched, but it wasn’t until an actual sheen was discovered when Husky Energy decided it was worth their trouble to shutdown the pipeline.

If the pipeline had been shutdown soon after the anomaly was detected, it’s possible quite a lot of the some 1,500 gallons of oil that pissed out into the North Saskatchewan River could have been averted. In any other industry where precautions are necessary – whether you’re a surgeon or an air traffic controller or a goddamn logger – you wouldn’t continue ‘full steam ahead’ until you were assured problems detected were confirmed not to be problems, but Husky Energy acted with the opposite frame of mind: it continued operations as normal until crews could confirm an issue because a shutdown of operations would have hurt the company’s bottom line; it would have been inconvenient.

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Sask. Premier Brad Wall talking with reporters. (Photo: Mike McKinnon, Global News.)

From there, Husky Energy waited hours after a sheen appeared before contacting the authorities, probably hoping to avoid involving the ministry until a leak could be found; in effect, delaying the inevitable water advisories, delaying the containment booms and the response that should have started hours before they did. Of course, we’re unsure of the precise timeline of events because Husky Energy has misreported them at least once; the company retracted an early report of events and replaced it a week after with a report that amends the time of the discovery to the next day – if we were to use their timeline of events from the original report, that would mean Husky Energy waited a full fourteen hours to report the leak once found, rather than thirty minutes.

Worst of all, however, is the failure on the part of the federal authorities in 2014 who allowed this project to go unassessed. The pipeline extension in question never received an Environmental Impact Assessment from the Ministry of Environment; rather, the ministry felt, despite the project drilling underneath the North Saskatchewan River, the project’s risks to the environment weren’t significant enough to trigger an assessment.

The point of this cranky indictment is not to suggest that oil is somehow not needed in a modern world – we depend on oil for our plastics, our transport, our electricity – nor am I suggesting in anyway that pipelines aren’t safer than the alternatives to transport untreated oil (such as rail cars.) The takeaway from this disaster for Brad Wall is that businesses make mistakes sometimes; they take risks they shouldn’t, and they most certainly do put profits before people and the environment some of the time.

Wall’s job as premier is to serve the people of Saskatchewan first and foremost – that’s a task he understands – but to do that, he cannot be the cheerleader of its oil and gas industry too. Treating the industry as a sacred cow that’s perfect, that’s above mistakes or rebuke, is the kind of attitude that puts oil in rivers, cuts people’s household water off, places towns and reserves under emergencies, and puts wildlife in danger.

When you’re serving in public office, as the premier is, you cannot forgo your responsibilities to independently review, assess and regulate businesses such as Husky Energy; and the standards used in your assessments must meet the needs and the well being of your province rather than just businesses under your consideration. Husky Energy’s hands are not clean of this spill, but nor are the ministry’s or the province’s. North Battleford and Prince Albert have both declined invitations for a visit from the premier and for good reason, they’re photo opportunities he hasn’t earned yet.

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Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes

 

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