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Thomson: Will we ever see pipeline report?

Graham Thomson, Edmonton Journal, August 13, 2013

I’m not sure anybody looks forward to the end of summer. But I would hazard a guess that of all those not looking forward to it, nobody is dreading the end of summer more than Energy Minister Ken Hughes. Not even schoolchildren and road construction crews.

The “end of summer” is the deadline for Hughes to release the report of an independent review into pipeline safety. We’ve been waiting for it since December. Actually, we’ve been waiting for it since July 2012 when Hughes first announced he’d ask the Alberta Energy Conservation Board to get a review underway into Alberta’s 400,000 kilometres of oil and gas pipelines. At the time, Alberta had just experienced three large pipeline spills and Calgary-based Enbridge had just been called the “Keystone Kops” of the pipeline industry for its handling of the 2010 spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

Hughes came under pressure to ensure the province’s aging pipeline system was safe.

“Let me be clear: If improvements are required, I will make sure that they happen,” said Hughes at the time. “I will also make this report public.”

In September, the ERCB announced it had hired a Calgary firm to conduct the safety audit and a report was expected at the end of December. But nothing was made public. We were told the report had to be studied by regulators and then given to Hughes. We’d see something public by the end of March. Or maybe April.

But no.

In May, Hughes vaguely said the report would be released “in the not too distant future.” Turned out that didn’t mean any time in May. Or June, for that matter, or July. His office now says the report will be released by “the end of summer.”

At this point the government seems to have weaseled and wiggled so much on the release of this report that you’re half expecting Hughes to say he never actually specified the end of this summer.

Is Hughes afraid to release the report?

The delay has created an information vacuum which critics and journalists are happy to fill with knowledgeable speculation and educated paranoia. To sum it up, we think the government is dragging its feet because the report is filled with bad news.

How much bad news? Well, considering it has taken the government eight months (and counting) to respond to a report that was written in three months, you have to think it’s really bad news.

You’re left with several conclusions: the government is trying to tone down or rewrite the findings; or the government is working on a list of remedial actions to release alongside the report so it can say it’s got the problem well in hand. Or, according to the NDP, the government doesn’t want the U.S. to know the true state of Alberta’s pipeline safety before President Barack Obama makes a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.

Yes, maybe we’re all getting a little paranoid. But with good reason.

Governments don’t sit on good news. When the government commissioned a report into the 2005 flood that devastated parts of southern Alberta, it sat on the report until 2012. The report explained how the province needed to do more to prevent future flood damage by, among other things, banning any new construction in flood zones.

Opposition parties have seized on the report to show how the provincial government did not properly prepare for this year’s even more devastating flood.

That has prompted the author of the report — former government MLA George Groeneveld — to complain that the opposition is “politicizing” his report. In an op-ed piece written for local newspapers, Groeneveld says even if the government had moved on all of his recommendations, the flood would have been just as devastating.

“The destruction our friends and neighbours experienced in southern Alberta this year was unprecedented,” writes Groeneveld, “and the recommendations in the report would not have had an impact on reducing the devastation experienced in southern Alberta.”

Yes, but the fact remains the government had a report in its hands in 2006 to help mitigate future flood damage and it failed to implement all the recommendations. Nobody could have foreseen the scope of this year’s exceptional disaster but the government didn’t even properly prepare for another “normal” disaster. Not only that, it kept the report secret for six years.

Officials in the Alison Redford government say they at least made a point of releasing the Groeneveld paper, unlike the Ed Stelmach government that stubbornly sat on it.

If the Redford government really wants to show that it is different and more transparent than any government that has gone before, it should stop acting like all the foot-dragging governments of the past.

Release the report into Alberta’s pipeline safety.

Considering the controversies and debates over pipelines, Albertans deserve to know what’s going on beneath their feet, and they deserve to know now. The not too distant future is already here.

gthomson@edmontonjournal.com

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

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