In contract, emails and meetings, Alberta officials ensured ‘independent’ pipeline safety review wouldn’t look at enforcement

Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes
Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes announcing the release of a third-party pipeline safety review in August, 2013. Global News

The Alberta energy regulator’s review of pipeline safety, commissioned after multiple pipeline accidents in 2011 and 2012, was explicitly designed to not look at any pipeline incidents or investigations. And regulator officials regularly communicated with reviewers to ensure this did not happen.

The review, released in August 2013, found that “Alberta has the most thorough overall regulatory regime of all the assessed Canadian jurisdictions.” A press release announcing the report’s publication said, “An independent review has confirmed that Alberta leads in pipeline safety.”

But the $465,000 review did not examine any specific incidents or how well Alberta’s regulations were enforced. Instead, it focused on the regulations themselves, comparing them to other jurisdictions and industry best practices. At the time of its release, it was criticized by environmental organizations and opposition parties for its limited scope.

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READ MORE: Alberta pipeline safety review

That scope was set from the beginning: The province’s service contract with Group 10 Engineering, the firm contracted to do the study, indicated the work would focus on “existing regulatory requirements and framework and industry best practices relating to ERCB-regulated pipelines.”

And the Energy Resources Conservation Board (now the Alberta Energy Regulator) monitored the report’s progress to ensure that scope was adhered to, according to documents obtained by Global News through Freedom of Information legislation.

“The project is intended to be a factual technical review to address the three areas,” reads a September, 2012 email from regulator adviser Tom Pesta to Theo Abels, Director of Group 10 Engineering and the lead author of the report.

“Therefore, you will revise the interview script questions to ensure the focus is on factual technical information that links directly to the above three areas.”

An email exchange obtained by Global News under Freedom of Information legislation. Global News, FOI

“Agreed,” Abels responds, “will review the questions and keep them focused on the above three items.”

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The original questions did not appear in Global News’ documents, and in an interview, Abels couldn’t recall exactly what they were as the discussion happened a year ago.

Pesta also wrote, “It was intended that you seek industry best practices firstly from the industry associations, and only if time allows would you contact individual companies. The ERCB does not object to the potential list of ‘owner’ companies; however you should not discuss any on-going incident investigations.” Abels again agreed.

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“The communication with Group 10 regarding the interview questions was strictly to ensure that the scope of the review aligned with the three areas specifically identified by the Minister,” regulator spokesman Bob Curran wrote Wednesday in response to questions posed by Global News. “The document you are referencing clearly states that the purpose of our interaction with Group 10 was ‘to ensure focus is on factual technical information that links directly to the above three areas.’”

(Those three areas are public safety and response to pipeline incidents, pipeline integrity management and the safety of pipelines near water bodies.)

“Initially the ERCB thought that there were subjective questions in there that were beyond the scope of the project,” Group 10’s Abels said in an interview with Global News. “So that is why they asked us to adjust them to become factual questions that are directly related to the pipeline safety review as defined in the scope, so that they could with validation be used in the actual report.”

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Curran also notes that the requirement to speak to industry associations first comes directly from the contract with Group 10. Abels said the restriction on speaking about investigations was so that ongoing investigations weren’t compromised by revealing details to pipeline owners.

“At no time, and in no way, did the ERCB seek to influence or direct the outcome of the review, nor do the records in question indicate that this occurred,” wrote Curran.

Progress meetings and tight timelines

The service contract required Group 10 to report to the regulator every two weeks with status updates. Documents indicate Group 10 told the regulator in detail whom they had spoken to and the information they obtained.

“The weekly meetings were process oriented, established to assist Group 10 and to ensure that they remained on schedule,” Curran wrote.

“The weekly meeting was a project progress meeting, and they were very assertive on keeping us to schedule,” Abels said.

In some of the meeting minutes which appear in Global’s documents, the tight deadline – from Sept. 10 to Nov. 30, 2012 was discussed. “Concern was expressed regarding the report mentioning short deadline to complete the work,” the documents read. After a redacted section, the minutes then read, “It is a short time frame but not an impossible time frame. Group 10 is committed to deliver a balanced report.”

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The service agreement also states Group 10 would “permit the ERCB to confirm the accuracy of information, data, statistics and factual information included in the report delivered by the Vendor prior to finalizing such report.”

Abels confirmed that ERCB received a draft copy of the report and requested a few changes, which Group 10 generally accepted. In a few cases, he said, they did not make changes, but instead clarified the wording.

“They did review the draft copy for technical correctness. And they did request a few minor changes. Obviously they are the regulator and they understand the intent of the law better than we did.”

Abels said that the regulator had “very little input” into either the methodology or the research conducted for the review. “I will absolutely state that at no stage did they restrict us in what we were doing or delve into the technical knowledge of it.”

“The AER/ERCB gave us a tremendous amount of access to their organization,” he said.

“Through the course of the study, the ERCB worked with the consultant to clarify some of the scope of the study to ensure it provided the level of detail and analysis that was expected when I commissioned the report,” reads a statement attributed to Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes sent to Global News Wednesday.

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Abels said his report – and its focus on the letter of provincial regulations – is “one of multiple elements that will continue improving regulation and pipeline safety.”

Another element should come in the next year: In September 2013, three weeks after the study was released, Alberta’s Auditor General said he will audit pipeline safety in the province, in response to requests from the Alberta NDP and Wildrose Party. According to his office, the scope of the audit has not yet been determined, but it will be performed sometime next year, with a report to be delivered before April 2015.

Note: Edited at 4:20 p.m. Nov. 28, 2013 to add cost of review.

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