Pipeline giant Enbridge is having an annus horribilis
| Posted: Wednesday, Aug 08, 2012 06:00 am
Pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. is having an annus horribilis.
Barely a day goes by now that the company isn’t hit with a new demand for a review or audit of some operational practice or safety procedure. Even a federal cabinet minister weighed in last week, warning that Enbridge’s plans to build the Northern Gateway pipeline were in jeopardy if the company didn’t smarten up.
Granted, this was only James Moore, the heritage minister, and not a heavyweight like Jim Flaherty (finance) or Joe Oliver (natural resources). Still it was the first time that anyone in the Harper cabinet has voiced criticism of any sort about the Gateway project, which would run from the Edmonton-area to Kitimat B.C.
Predictably, and sadly, the news about Enbridge has been accompanied by claims that this particular company, the entire pipeline industry and even Alberta’s oilsands are the targets of a holy war being waged by eco-terrorists and radical environmentalists.
Let it be said; there are many in the green movement who dislike the oil and gas industry and would like to see it sharply curtailed. And, yes, there are some who believe the oilsands are a curse and should be shut down.
But such thinking does not reflect the attitudes of most Canadians; we are not a radical people. Indeed, even in British Columbia there remains a high degree of open-mindedness toward the Gateway pipeline. And don’t forget that B.C. is moving forward on a huge natural gas play in the northeast corner of the province. So British Columbians understand the importance of energy and energy exports.
The real issue here is addressing the legitimate concerns of ordinary Canadians, the Marthas and Henrys, as Ralph Klein used to call them. It should be possible, it must be possible, for citizens to raise questions about oil and gas development without being labelled a radical or a whack-job. What kind of questions? Here are a few:
• Probably nothing has engendered as much public skepticism about oil and gas development as the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Almost five million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf over a three-month period. An inquiry concluded that the disaster was the result of cost-cutting and lax safety practices. A reasonable person will ask how and why this was allowed to happen and whether it can happen elsewhere.
• Over the past decade, a new word has entered our vocabulary. That word is fracking, which is a short form of hydraulic fracturing, a process in which fluids under high pressure are injected into the earth to release natural gas, petroleum and other products. Are there benefits to fracking? Absolutely. Already it is unlocking tremendous wealth. Are there questions a reasonable person might ask about the technology? Absolutely. There are questions about water contamination and methane leaks, a contributor to greenhouse gases. What is being done to address these concerns?
• Enbridge likes to boast that it has a near-perfect record of moving petroleum through its pipelines – and that’s almost perfectly true. But a reasonable person will also want to know how the company’s safety procedures failed so spectacularly on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. Or why an American investigator likened the company’s response to that spill to the Keystone Kops. And what kind of reassurances can Enbridge give the public that it can and will do better.
To that end, the various audits, orders and inspections facing Enbridge are no bad thing; they will address some of the reasonable skepticism that has emerged about the company. Similarly, a provincially ordered inquiry into pipeline safety will help reassure the public that the industry is using best practices.
No province has as much at stake here as Alberta. Our prosperity – schools, hospitals, roads and bridges – depend on Enbridge and other players in the energy industry getting it right. For their sake, and ours, we have to make sure they do.