The Pembina Institute responds to the federal Environmental Emergencies Program cutbacks and consolidation that may compromise environmental emergency responses in future oil spill disasters.
The Issue - Environmental Emergency Cutbacks and Consolidation
On May 1, 2012, Jennifer Martin, Co-Host of Alberta Primetime CTV Two, interviewed Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent about the Responsibility for Environmental Emergencies of future oil spills resulting from the transportation of oil through pipelines crisscrossing Canada and the U.S. In this lengthy interview, Jennifer Martin interrogates Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent regarding how the federal cuts to the Environmental Emergencies Program in Alberta will affect the water, land, and Albertans if there are devastating spills.
See the Alberta Primetime – Responsibility for Environmental Emergencies broadcast here.
The controversial federal cuts to the Environmental Emergencies Program may prove costly on many levels but this is not so assures Federal Environment Minister Kent. “The consolidation of six offices into two will have no impact on Environment Canada’s ability to do its job.” Unfortunately, with four of the offices closing including access to experienced staff in the Edmonton office that responds to about 1,000 oil spills per year, it will definitely make a difference with the lack of manpower available on the ground if even one huge oil spill occurs.
Kent explains that Environment Canada staff are not first responders but they do support the lead agency in any emergency situation. In this case, the lead agency in Alberta is the National Energy Board (NEB) that possesses the expertise for any local disaster. The NEB would address the containment and the clean up and the Environment Canada emergency office staff would assist in the event of a disaster. Where required, the Environment Canada staff will give onsite advice.
Environment Canada officials and experts analyzed a more cost effective way to deliver services for emergencies prior to this consolidation. Kent assures Albertans that Environment Canada will continue their national responsibility for maintaining good water quality. The Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring will be scientifically rigorous, comprehensive, integrated, and transparent.
Replacing manpower on the ground for potential environmental emergencies will be “digital technologies, voice communication, satellite transmissions, real-time video, of real-time scientific data, of wind and water currents,” explains Kent and adds this will “allow us to work from centralized highly technical support headquarters and to provide that support service.”
The Pembina Institute’s Nathan Lemphers, MCP, Senior Policy Analyst, reacts to the May 1st Alberta Primetime broadcast
The Pembina Institute is a Canadian non-profit think tank that promotes sustainable energy solutions through research, education, consulting and advocacy. They envision a world where our needs are met while protecting the earth’s living systems and guarantees clean air, land and water, prevents adverse effects of climate change, as well as maintaining a just and global community. However, the relentless pursuit of corporations installing pipelines across the land and ecosystems of Canada and the United States is counterproductive to this vision of the world.
Even though Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent assures the people of Alberta in the broadcast that they would not be left vulnerable to disasters from pipeline oil spills, Lemphers strongly disagrees when he describes what effects the federal cuts will have. “It will limit the ability for the federal government to quickly respond with on the ground personnel.”
Kent explained that the National Energy Board in Calgary is the lead agency that will deal with the oil spills. But Lemphers suggests it was not good enough when the Lake Wabamun spill proved the emergency response inadequate. “What was in place before these cuts was inadequate given what happened with the Wabamun spill. The federal government didn’t have the expertise to effectively respond in that circumstance. For the consolidation for their person in Ottawa, it remains to be seen how they can improve their overall oversight of environmental emergencies.”
The Lake Wabamun oil spill occurred in August 2005 when a derailment of 43 CN rail cars caused 1.3 million litres of bunker oil and other chemicals to spill into the lake and popular recreation area. The Paul First Nation, located on the shore of the lake, sued CN Rail for $505 million, the federal government for $200 million and the Province of Alberta for $70 million, arguing that fishing and hunting near the lake was impossible after the spill. But even more disturbing were the findings of what did not occur in this analysis of what went terribly wrong: Report to the Railway Safety Act Review Advisory Panel, The Lake Wabamun Disaster: A Catalyst for Change. The inadequacies of the emergency response in August 2005 at Lake Wabamun are very disturbing. The effectiveness of emergency responses to future oil spills is doubtful especially with these current cuts and possible increased oilsands production if TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline are approved.
Cuts will make federal government oversight more challenging
Lemphers agrees it makes no sense to cut the Environmental Emergencies Program now. “Given the fact that there are more energy projects going in the ground and oilsands development, it seems counter intuitive to be cutting back the amount of federal capacity when the demand for that capacity is even greater now. The federal government still has environmental legislation on the books that they have to enforce. But these cuts will make it more challenging for the federal government to improve their oversight. The NEB is also increasing the number of audits they are doing and the people doing those audits. There has been a beefing up of oversight from the NEB. It means there will be more audits that will take place if an incident happens. There are different penalties in place. Just because there are more audits it doesn’t mean that less spills will happen.”
Apparently, cleaning up oil spills is not easy so it is not that clear how successful the local and federal agencies have been at cleaning up these oil spills. Lemphers admits, “It’s a very difficult question to answer. There is still oil leaking from a ship that sank over 60 years ago in the Grenville channel not far from Enbridge’s proposed west coast tanker route. There is still oil showing up from the Exxon Valdez spill. Oil spills of this magnitude are very difficult to clean up, regardless of which government agency is in charge.”
Improved water and soil contamination monitoring
Lemphers shares what he knows about how strict and effective the new federal regulations will be as water and soil contamination is monitored with increased oil production. “There will be much improved oilsands water monitoring in place for groundwater and surface water. There have been many independent science experts of the current monitoring system and they have made recommendations for a better system. Right now there is a monitoring framework that is being developed and it has yet to be implemented on the ground. So time will tell whether or not the data generated from this new monitoring network will be used to inform future monitoring decisions and that the current industry bias will be addressed in the new governance structure for the monitoring network.”
Federal Environment Minister Kent stated in the Primetime interview “Environment Canada will continue with national responsibility for water quality with regards to the Athabasca oilsands and the program for water, air, and biodiversity monitoring. That of course is funded by industry and will not be affected by any of these changes. With regards to water quantity monitoring, that is in a provincial jurisdiction and municipalities and provinces have the powers to meter and to price so we are basically returning in those cases in terms of water quantity, not quality, but quantity, the authority that they already have.”
Lemphers adds, “Kent has it half right. It’s true that water quantity is a provincial jurisdiction but the federal government has obligations to protect fish habitat, species at risk, migratory birds and to manage transboundary water issues. There certainly is a need for more involvement with Environment Canada in how the oilsands are managed. Look at Duty Calls on Pembina site 2010.”
New technologies for monitoring spills may not be enough
Kent also explained the reason for these cuts, “It is a case of contemporizing. New technologies, digital technologies both in terms of voice communications, but in terms of satellite transmission, of real-time video, real-time scientific data of weather patterns, of wind and water currents, allow us to work from centralized highly technical support headquarters and to provide that support service.” But the question remains how there can be real-time on the ground help at the local level when disasters are happening a few thousand miles away from control headquarters. It is blatantly unrealistic and dangerous.
Lemphers agrees. “Take a look at the Enbridge pipeline spill that happened in Michigan. It took them 12 hours to detect the leak and 6 hours to respond and they spilled 20,000 barrels of oil into the Kalamazoo River. Or you can look at the Rainbow pipeline that spilled 35,000 barrels of oil into a wetland in Northern Alberta. The spill was more contained than the Kalamazoo River but even though it was larger, it was easier to clean up. But it is still difficult to predict where a pipeline will leak. Certainly pipeline companies have been improving their ability to monitor the integrity of their pipelines that is helping to prevent spills. But at the same time, you are seeing more pipelines and more oil flowing through the pipelines so any sort of incremental improvements in pipeline integrity may be diminished by the absolute increase in spills and oil production. You do need both; control headquarters and more manpower on the ground.”
Lemphers also expresses concern about pipelines going through wilderness areas like that of BC if the Northern Gateway pipeline gets built. “When you look at the Enbridge pipeline going through remote areas of Northwestern BC, it is more tenuous when there are extreme weather events. This will make it more difficult for personnel to respond quickly. Avalanches, rock land slides, river flooding, earthquakes on the west coast, may all affect the pipeline.”
Future still uncertain for Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipeline projects
Although TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline has been approved in Canada by the federal government, it is still a waiting game in the U.S. until there is Presidential Approval on its northern section that may come after the U.S. election. Lemphers believes that getting both the northern section of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Northern Gateway project approved may not be so easy. “There is still considerable opposition in the US so simply rerouting the pipeline will not necessarily allay any of the concerns for Americans. Respect to Gateway, this pipeline is facing considerable opposition from First Nations and people across the country. It will be challenging for Enbridge to implement this pipeline against the wishes of Canadians. It’s also difficult to know when it will be approved since the federal government is changing the rules of the game half way through. What still remains are the opportunities for legal action by concerned groups and individuals or by the province of BC.”
Governments can do more to help especially regarding a price on carbon as the oilsands projects increase. “You’re seeing even fossil fuel companies pushing for a price on carbon. TransAlta pulled out of a carbon capture project because there isn’t a high enough price on carbon. Even some fossil fuel companies are advocating for improved climate policies and a better price on carbon in the country yet we are not seeing the federal government respond. It’s a price on carbon period because there is none regarding the feds.”
Only time will tell if both the TransCanada Keystone XL and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines will be completed. Meanwhile, the balancing act between the old regime fossil fuel energy generation and new upstart companies promoting alternative energy generation continues. Regardless of competition in the energy sectors, the world needs adequate energy to supply a demanding world population and Alberta, Canada is playing a major role.
LinksAlberta band settles Wabamun oil-spill lawsuitWabamun Lake Oil Spill August 2005: Data Report for Water and Sediment Quality in the Pelagic Area of the Lake (August 4-5 to September 15, 2005).
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com