It’s been a full 10 days since a Husky Energy pipeline spewed 250,000 litres of heavy oil and diluent into the North Saskatchewan River near Maidstone, Sask.

But it’s still totally unclear if the incident — which has forced North Battleford and Prince Albert to shut down their water intake systems and Muskoday First Nation to declare a state of emergency — was an accident or a pre-meditated false flag by a crew of anti-pipeline activists disguised as bumbling politicians and oil execs attempting to prove why Canada’s pipeline approval and regulation process is fatally flawed.

We jest, obviously.

But the situation has indeed come at an incredibly bad time for pipeline companies, given that public hearings for Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion are underway (with that process already heavily criticized), while those for TransCanada’s Energy East are set to begin on August 8.

Tweet: Husky Energy #oilspill in SK & botched response doesn't do much to inspire confidence in #pipelines http://bit.ly/2akluqN #skpoli #cdnpoliThe spill and the botched response certainly hasn’t done much to inspire confidence in pipeline safety.

Husky Waited 14 Hours Before Cutting Off Flow, Reporting Breach

At around 8 a.m. on July 20, Husky Energy detected “pressure anomalies” in its Saskatchewan Gathering System, which transports heavy oil to an upgrader in Lloydminster.

The “anomalies” started after Husky turned on the flow for 23 kilometres of a pipeline expansion project, which the Saskatchewan ministry of environment decided in 2014 didn’t require an environmental impact assessment.

(On Friday, CBC noted that Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall attended the opening of another part of the system’s expansion in March, stating at the time that it was evidence the “despite low oil prices, our province's energy sector continues to attract billions of dollars in new investment.”)

Husky has assured the spill was caused from a section in 1997 and not part of the new construction, although it’s unclear how the expansion may have affected the older infrastructure.

On the evening of July 20, the company dispatched a crew to the site, but they “did not identify a leak.” It wasn’t until 10 a.m. on July 21 that Husky decided to cut the pipeline’s flow and notify the provincial government. The company has since submitted an amended report that indicated it actually reported the spill within 30 minutes of discovering it, although that contradicts all its previous statements.

Two days after the spill, a government official told Global News that containment booms set up on the river had failed, with oil floating overtop of the barriers.

It was also on that day that Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall issued his first statement, oddly choosing to emphasize that oil that isn’t transported by pipeline will move by rail: “We know that rail is actually more susceptible to spills and spills are often more intense,” he said.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley echoed Wall’s angle with near precision: “Absolutely the safest way to transport oil and gas is by pipeline and so the key is to ensure that we incorporate the safest mechanisms possible, the highest standards in terms of pipeline safety and pipeline monitoring, and also the highest standards in terms of cleanup.”

That will surely make the residents of North Battleford feel better about their lives.

In the days to follow, oil-covered birds were pulled from the river, Prince Albert shut down its water intake (cutting off nearby rural areas and banning excess use for watering lawns and use in car washes and laundromats) and news broke that the Saskatchewan government had recently cut the budget to the office tasked with inspecting pipelines.

“Highest standards,” indeed.

Saskatchewan Continually Criticized For Poor Pipeline Regulation

Adding to the chaos was the fact the government couldn’t track down the information on when the pipeline was last inspected because all the records were kept on paper.

In 2012, the province’s auditor general slammed the province’s regulatory process for pipelines. Earlier this year, the province’s trade minister suggested the National Energy Board’s process for reviewing interprovincial and international pipelines was sufficient, and that its review of the environmental assessment process was “going to be putting hurdles in front of the energy sector, and the pipeline industry particularly.”

On July 27, Wall finally issued his first statement to the Regina media on the situation, suggesting “I’m not satisfied” and it’s “not an optimal situation — it's a terrible situation” and “I can't put my finger on some egregious error or misjudgment that I would say they made or that officials are telling me they made.”

By then, 14 animals had been found dead. Nine booms had been deployed in six locations. Muskoday First Nation had declared a state of emergency over its water supply. Other First Nations expressed further concern about impacts on hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering (on Friday, Husky appointed two Indigenous representatives to the company’s “command centre”).

On July 28, TransCanada’s CEO Russ Girling stepped into the fray, noting the spill will “shake public confidence” and assuring that his company’s Energy East project would include safety improvements preventing a similar accident from happening.

The same spirit was channelled in Alberta Oil magazine, which initially suggested that “Husky’s emergency staff reacted quickly” and later assured that companies like TransCanada and Kinder Morgan would do better (just for good measure, it also suggested “radical ENGOs” are “bottom-feeders who live off oil companies’ mistakes”).

Could Be Months Before North Battleford and Prince Albert Can Draw Water

So here we are.

Some 100,000 litres of the spill have been collected so far. Nobody seems to know how much of the oil has mixed with sediment in the river and sunk. The spill has travelled about 500 km downstream. It may be months before North Battleford and Prince Albert can draw water from the river again; the latter just built a 30 km pipeline to transport water from the South Saskatchewan River.

But we are supposed to trust that pipeline companies will do it better next time.

And that’s maybe the greatest irony. In the days after the spill, industry defenders argued that the spill was tiny. Equivalent to one-tenth of an Olympic size swimming pool. Just a blip on the radar of the amount of oil that’s safely transported across the continent every day.

Yet Husky hasn’t been able to contain it; in fact, it’s completely flubbed the task, instead attempting to spread misinformation about when the spill actually happened.

The provincial government has delivered no meaningful public response besides an assurance that pipelines are better than rail for transporting oil. And as usual, Indigenous communities — many of whose members continue to rely on the land and waters for sustenance — are bearing the brunt of the damages.

Is this the best we can hope for?

That an effectively unregulated pipeline system spills 1,500 barrels of oil into a river that many towns rely on for drinking water and all that our political and corporate leaders can come up with is the request that we just trust them to approve and regulate pipelines that will transport upwards of one million barrels of oil per day past other major sources of drinking water?

It really is like they’re trying to make an airtight case against building new export pipelines.

Image via CBC.ca

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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