By James Wood And Chris Varcoe, Calgary Herald, June 17, 2012
Opponents point to spill, warn of risks
An oil spill in central Alberta flowed into the Red Deer River system, but its ultimate effect may be felt thousands of kilometres away, over the Rocky Mountains.
Just over a week ago, a section of pipeline running under a tributary of the river near Sundre leaked up to 475,000 litres of oil, with much of it flushed into nearby Gleniffer Lake.
Today, the spill threatens to give Premier Alison Redford a major political headache as she touts pipeline expansion across the continent and a Canadian energy strategy aimed at boosting Alberta oil and gas exports.
With British Columbia in the midst of ongoing federal hearings - and a ferocious debate - over Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, the Alberta oil slick has provided a vivid image to fears of the project.
In Burns Lake, B.C., a community of more than 3,500 people along the proposed pipeline route, a tie vote of the village council last week meant the narrow defeat of a motion opposing the pipeline.
Mayor Luke Strimbold wants the village to stay officially neutral on Gateway until the end of a joint regulatory review process.
The Sundre leak won't be a deciding factor, he said, but is firmly on the community's radar.
"It's definitely something we are aware of and we take into consideration," Strimbold said.
"It's definitely a concern. (Gateway) would go right underneath, in-between the channel of Burns Lake and Decker Lake . . . where we collect our drinking water and that was one of the concerns of the residents."
For opponents of Gateway, such as Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs, the spill has galvanized their concerns and public opinion.
"I don't think there's any question people quickly linked the spill in Alberta to the inherent risks of building a pipeline across 1,100 kilometres of territory that has many, many significant rivers, streams and watersheds that are integral to the wild salmon fishery here in British Columbia," he said.
"It doesn't bode well . . . to convince people this is a riskfree project that we need not worry about."
Such talk represents problems for Alberta's Progressive Conservative government, which strongly backs the $5.5-billion Northern Gateway project and is trying to woo B.C. onside.
The pipeline, which would ship bitumen from northern Alberta to Asia-bound tankers on the Pacific Coast, is seen as key to ramping up oilsands production.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark, whose government is staying neutral on Gateway until the review process is complete, told CBC last week the Sundre spill had "absolutely" caused her concern.
Clark noted she doesn't favour economic development "at any cost."
But Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen believes the spill won't make Alberta's case more difficult in B.C. or elsewhere.
"They want to make sure we have a process in place as well, which we do, to take care of these. Of course we don't want (spills) to happen. We do unfortunately have these incidents that happen, but we're quick to respond to them. And I think that's the important piece," she said.
Philippe Reicher, vice-president of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, said the shipment of any product involves some risk, regardless of the method of transportation - but the network of pipelines for oil and gas is safe.
"Those events are random events, they are not systemic events. So you have pipeline systems that have been operating for decades without any issues. It's just the way it is," he said.
Yet Sean Kheraj, a professor of Canadian and environmental history at York University in Toronto, said the Alberta government is under-estimating the potential impact of the Sundre leak and overselling pipeline safety within the province.
While the government is emphasizing the amount of spills compared to the 400,000 km of pipeline in Alberta, a more relevant figure is the number of leaks, he said.
In 2010, there were 20 releases from crude oil pipelines, a rate of one failure every 18.25 days. Including multi-phased pipes (moving liquid, oil, gas and distillates) there were 241 failures, or one every 1.4 days, he says, quoting provincial figures.
"It's likely a leak will occur somewhere along one of these new pipelines, so to have a better sense of mitigating environmental risk we have to more realistically accept that these pipelines do leak," Kheraj said.
But the issue in Alberta receives relatively little attention because most spills occur north of Edmonton in sparsely populated areas - unlike the Sundre leak, he said.
"It was a relatively small, mid-sized oil spill, but it drew a lot more attention because it threatened drinking water and because it was in closer proximity to a major urban centre in the province."
University of British Columbia political science professor George Hoberg, who specializes in pipeline politics, said the Red Deer leak has grabbed the attention of many British Columbians who are watching the Northern Gateway debate.
While the Alberta pipeline was built with "completely different technology and regulations" than Gateway, it's providing valuable ammunition to those fighting against the new pipeline, he said.
The biggest impact of the leak - with its images of oilslicked beavers and filmy lake water - may be in stiffening the resolve of First Nations, who have real political power in the Gateway approval, Hoberg said.
"First Nations issues matter the most, in the sense First Nations opposition could ultimately thwart the pipeline," he said.
The latest pipeline leak has created a political headache for Alison Redford's government.
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