Graham Thomson, Vancouver Sun, June 13, 2012
Plains Midstream accident comes as Northern Gateway makes its way through review process
When Alberta Premier Alison Redford showed up at the site of the Red Deer River oil spill on Friday, she didn't bring a bucket and mop. She didn't help deploy a boom and she didn't go looking for any oil-soaked animals to rescue.
In terms of being helpful, Redford was about as useful to the cleanup efforts as the media horde that descended on the scene.
But Redford showed up and she showed up quickly.
Environmentalists' arguments are strengthened after a non-functioning pipeline leaked about 475,000 litres of sour crude near Sundre, Alta., on June 7, which flowed downstream in the Red Deer River to a reservoir. (Photograph by: Jeff Mcintosh, CP Files, Postmedia News) Click for larger image.
Within hours of learning about the spill, Redford had cancelled meetings in her Calgary office and was on her way to Sundre. Her boots-on-the-ground response plays to her persona as a premier of action but she also realized, based on the sad example set by her predecessors, she had no choice but to show up and show up quickly. Like many other events in life, including solving murder cases and drinking an opened bottle of wine, it's best if these things are done within the first 48 hours.
When then-premier Ralph Klein toured the site of an oil spill on Wabamun Lake in 2005, he did it two weeks after the spill had occurred and he did it by air. He took off from Calgary in a government plane, flew a few circles around the lake and then headed back home, getting no more than a bird's-eye view of the lake, something hundreds of oil-sickened ducks would never see again. Klein was criticized for not taking the spill more seriously.
When floods hit southern Alberta in 2010, then-premier Ed Stelmach left for a vacation with his wife in Portugal. The people of Medicine Hat and surrounding area never forgave him or the government and in the provincial election picked opposition MLAs for the first time in three decades.
It didn't matter that Stelmach's appearance wouldn't have lowered the water levels by a millimetre or that Klein wouldn't have helped the cleanup operations by personally inhaling the pungent aroma of petroleum. People want to know their leaders care, that they're taking the situation seriously.
That means showing up - if only to hold a news conference and offer what are basically platitudes.
"There's no doubt that if we have economic development, that there are certainly, in some cases, impacts," said Redford. "And they're very unfortunate impacts."
Redford's appearance at the spill wasn't just aimed at voters in Alberta, but at voters in British Columbia. With Alberta looking for public and political support for Enbridge's Northern Gate-way pipeline to the West Coast, Red-ford needs to be seen taking the spill seriously.
If the pipeline is built the people of B.C. will one day be facing the risk of the "unfortunate impacts" of Alberta's economic development.
Last week's spill was relatively small, about 475,000 litres, because the pipeline, operated by Plains Mid-stream, wasn't pumping oil at the time. The oil that leaked was already sitting in the line. That had company officials trying to reassure the public the spill could have been much worse if the pipeline had been working at the time and if high water levels on the Red Deer River hadn't washed the water downstream to a reservoir where it could be more effectively cordoned off by a boom.
I don't know if I feel reassured by the thought that a much larger environmental disaster was just a roll of the dice away.
The people of B.C. probably aren't reassured either.
The spill will raise questions about whether our regulations governing pipelines are adequate or if they're being enforced.
Perhaps it will simply underline the fact of life that these "unfortunate impacts" are going to happen, no matter how good the laws or how stringent the enforcement.
It doesn't help Redford's argument that Plains Midstream was involved in another, much larger pipeline spill, in northern Alberta in 2011, one where the only bit of "luck" involved a beaver dam that conveniently (but not for the beaver) helped contain the spill. That cleanup is still going on.
And it doesn't help her argument that the $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline will cross 773 streams, 669 of them bearing fish, in its 1,200-kilometre march to the sea. And opponents of Enbridge's proposed pipeline are not going to forget the $700-million mess created by Enbridge's existing pipeline in Michigan that spilled 3.8 million litres of oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010.
Pipeline spills are going to happen as surely as car accidents and plane crashes, but we are not going to stop travelling by car or plane. The difference is that the people of B.C. don't have to have the Northern Gateway pipeline crossing 669 of their fish-bearing waterways.
B.C. will only agree to the pipeline if the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risk. That is an argument the Alberta government has not put forward.
So, despite Redford's quick response to last week's spill, it's perfectly understandable if our neighbours to the west are even more reluctant now to endure the risk of Alberta's economic development spilling all over their backyard.
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