New study reveals shocking details about provinces tar sands regulation and enforcement. 

The Alberta government has made a lot of ‘world class’ claims relating to its management of a growing tar sands industry. Over the past few years, two researchers, Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee, decided to put those claims to the test and yesterday they published the results of their tireless investigation.

The results are pretty startling.

From 1996 to the mid-2012 period the researchers uncovered over 9,262 environmental incidents in the tar sands region pieced together from spotty government records. That number averages out to be almost 2-per day.

Over four thousand of those incidents were apparent violations of Alberta’s environmental laws and regulations, 86% of which were done by either Suncor or Syncrude.

oil may run our cars shouldnt run our governmentThat already startling number is likely quite low because of the Government of Alberta’s shoddy record keeping. According to Timoney and Lee, ‘The incidents documented represent an unknown fraction of the true number of incidents occurring per unit time because of the combined effect of missing records, redacted records, multiple contraventions subsumed under a single incident, under-reporting, and the fact that other kinds of incidents, such as pipeline spills, are typically not reported to the EMS database.’

The true number of environmental incidents and violations is not known but is likely over the 10,000 mark.

The second startling number is that of the over 9,000 documented incidents only 0.9% of them resulted in some type of fine or other enforcement order from the Alberta government. That means 99.1% of the violations went without any type of enforcement at all – no fines, no charges, no compliance orders, nothing.

What type of message do you think it sends to companies like Syncrude, Shell and Exxon when they can break the law and 99% of the time nothing will be done about it? 

The situation is also getting worse. The highest numbers of incidents occurred from between 2008-2011, indicating that companies are continually and increasingly failing to comply with Alberta’s environmental legislation .

The study also proves that the oil companies are not improving their practices. The study shows that the contraventions were chronic, repetitive and indicated little progress towards better management practices.

The only good news from the study is that media attention and public involvement appear to facilitate enforcement actions by the Alberta Government. When public citizens or organizations like Greenpeace get involved the government may actually start doing its job.  When we aren’t involved they simply don’t.

As we await answers from the on-going tar sands spill in Cold Lake and the myriad of other pipeline spills and tar sands incidents to hit Alberta two things are clear.

Things are not under control – the tar sands industry in Alberta is essentially regulating itself. Prosecution is lax, oversight is non-existent, incidents continue to mount and the Alberta government isn’t doing much to anything about it.

The other thing is that Alberta’s claim to be a “world class” environmental manger is as full of holes as some of its pipelines.