EDMONTON - A review of pipeline safety commissioned by the Alberta government after a series of high-profile accidents was heavily influenced by industry and designed more to quiet public concern than improve the system, say Greenpeace campaigners.
They say documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation suggest the terms of the review were OK'd in advance by pipeline company officials.
"There's a difference between talking to industry and asking for their approval," said Greenpeace energy spokesman Keith Stewart. "It looks like industry got to write the terms for this review."
But Energy Minister Ken Hughes said a meeting held between department staff and a broad array of pipeline industry representatives before the review was announced was to let them know he meant business.
"I called the meeting to convey a strong sense of urgency and a strong sense of reflection and investigation," said Hughes.
The Alberta government asked for the technical safety review last summer following three pipeline-related spills.
In one of those spills, a Plains Midstream Canada pipeline leaked about 475,000 litres of oil into the Red Deer River, a major drinking water source for central Alberta.
In July, more than 50 environmental, conservation, land rights, unions First Nations and other groups called for an independent review of pipeline safety. On July 20, Hughes announced that review, to be conducted by a third party firm contracted by the Energy Resources Conservation Board, the provincial regulator.
But a few days before, Hughes had convened a meeting of all the major industry players.
Stewart said correspondence between bureaucrats after that meeting suggests the government all but asked for the industry's permission.
"The meeting was very productive and we are confident we can move this forward," said one email from a high-ranking energy department official.
"Their overwhelming support for the ERCB as the regulator was good to hear and their advice for you to do a review was also reassuring."
Stewart added other communications suggest the review's job was mostly to reassure the public.
"Some recent incidents and ongoing media attention about energy and environmental issues have given us all the opportunity to reflect not just on how we ensure safety, but also on how we communicate our safety commitment," said a July 11 email from a senior bureaucrat, quoting from the invitation issued to pipeline companies.
Hughes defended the review, saying it is intended to assess industry standards on pipeline integrity, water crossings and spill response.
"The first step in that process is to assure me in my role as minister that we performing at the best possible level," he said. "Secondly, once we are assured that that is the case, that there is also strong communication about how we're conducting this business in this province."
Stewart pointed out that none of the groups that called for the review — mostly environmental and landowners organizations — were consulted in advance. He repeated criticisms that the review was kept deliberately narrow in scope, focussing on whether government regulations are aligned with industry best practices.
"It doesn't tell you anything about what actually does happen," he said.
He noted an American review was severely critical of Calgary-based Enbridge's handling of a pipeline spill in Michigan.
Hughes said critics will be welcome to make submissions when the report goes out for public response.
The report is expected later this month. No public input process has been determined, said Hughes.