Extracting info: Why’s it so hard to get the goods on oil spills?

Tracks pass through oil on the banks of the Gleniffer reservoir after a pipeline leak near Sundre, Alta., on Friday, June 8, 2012. Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press

CALGARY – It can be tough to get a good sense of how safe Alberta’s oil industry is when you can’t access the information you need.

The Alberta government claims to be the most transparent in the world when it comes to information on oil spills. But actually finding the information isn’t all that easy.

“If people want to know about spills in this province, they can certainly access that,” Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Diana McQueen said in an interview with Global News. “We’re very transparent.”

You can access, that is, if you can pay: A database of the province’s spills costs upward of $300; a detailed electronic map of Alberta’s pipelines will set you back over $14,000 – more if you want to update it every month with any new developments.

“We could always work to be more transparent but there is a cost of being able to provide the information,” McQueen said.

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McQueen said she doesn’t know of any jurisdiction as transparent as Alberta.

“People have access – a lot more access to information and data with regards to spills or with regards to oil and gas development in this province than they would in other areas.”

VIDEO: Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Diana McQueen talks about transparency and oil spills information

When it comes to spills, at least, that’s not the case. The U.S. Department of Transportation makes a list of every reported pipeline incident in the country since 1993 available for download, for free, on their website.

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This data contains detailed information on the cause, the material released and the location of every spill.

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The Energy Resources Conservation Board doesn’t make all of its enforcement activity publicly available, either. The board publishes its highest-profile investigations, but clumps the rest into statistical reports whose formats vary significantly from year to year.

Contrast this with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline Safety branch, which offers a database that lets you search for all enforcement actions taken against a specific company. Selecting a specific enforcement action lets you view all the documentation related to that incident.

“Despite political statements to the contrary,” says researcher Kevin Timoney, “the reality is that access to information about the environmental record of the energy industry is characterized by long delays, numerous missing and incomplete records, and erroneous records. … There is little or no accountability.”

Timoney, with Edmonton-based Treeline Ecological Research, is preparing a paper on the topic. The province’s “transparency and access to information are unacceptable,” he argues.

“The public has a right to know what is happening, and what government is doing about it, on a real-time basis.”

Industry groups say they’re on board with giving the public more information about what they do.

“I think transparency is critical,” said David Pryce, Vice-President of Operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. “The public has been asking about our practices and about our performance. We need to make sure that that is out there, that that information is out there.”

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Brenda Kenny, President and CEO of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, agrees, with an important caveat: Making detailed pipeline maps available can be a security concern because terrorists could get them, she said.

“I think you can appreciate that in this day and age it’s probably not wise to necessarily make detailed, accurate locations available to everybody.”

Individuals living near pipelines and local emergency response groups have access to detailed maps of their area, she added. One Sundre-area emergency group Global News contacted confirmed that they have map data. But Sundre-area rancher Dennis Overguard said that he did not, although after living on his land for years, he is aware of where the pipelines are.

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard agrees it’s in oil industry’s interests to get as much information to the public as possible – especially as companies push such high-profile projects as TransCanada’s Keystone XL.

“If companies like ours are going to be able to continue to do business in communities, if we’re going to be able to grow … we’ve got to be seen as that good neighbour,” he said.

Meanwhile, the province has promised to improve its transparency.

“There is certainly going to be an increase” in the amount of information available under the new Alberta Energy Regulator, which starts phasing in operations in June, said its incoming CEO Jim Ellis. “And you can see it all over the place.”

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A new environmental monitoring agency will “be the driver for more transparent, more reliable data. … We use that data to make decisions, and we believe Albertans need to have an ability to see the data, as well.”

Ellis couldn’t say what new information would be available. But “I can tell you, the outcome of this is a transparent system, which means there’s going to be more data than you currently have available, for sure.

“Stand by for that.”

With a report from Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto.

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