Alberta’s Energy Minister Ken Hughes is in damage control mode after published reports alleged that his review of pipeline safety in Alberta has been overly influenced by the very people under investigation.

The Minister announced this review on July 20th, in the aftermath of three major oil spills in Alberta within a one-month period and a blistering report from the head of the US pipeline safety agency which had slammed Enbridge's Alberta-based operations for their “Keystone Kops” response to a spill in Michigan and for exhibiting a "culture of deviance" on safety issues

This ad was run in Alberta papers in July 2012.

Yet when Minister Hughes wrote to the CEO of Enbridge along with 13 other CEOs and industry association representative on July 12 (two days after the report on Enbridge had come out) to invite them to a discussion on the safety of Alberta's pipeline system, he sought to reassure them that there would be no hard-hitting review in his province.

According to emails obtained by Greenpeace under Freedom of Information legislation, the Minister’s invitation read:

“As you know, the industry operates under world-leading regulatory regime, and has a strong and improving safety record. 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. With this in mind, I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you.”

And while it isn’t shocking that the Minister would meet with industry before announcing the review, it is telling that he has never met with representatives of the 54 organizations who have published open letters to the Alberta government requesting an independent review of pipeline safety.

What is surprising, however, is that the industry representatives appear to have been asked to support the terms of reference for the review and who would do it. According to a report on the meeting from Jim Ellis (Deputy Minister of Alberta Ministry of Energy) to Dan Mcfayden (Dan is currently the Chair of the Energy Resources Conservation Board, but was previously the Vice-President for Regulatory Affairs and Public Policy of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association):

“I have asked for a telecom tomorrow to bring you-up-to-speed on our meeting with CEOs today. We may be asking you to undertake an inquiry focused on various aspects of pipeline performance to include possibly:

1. Pipeline integrity management

2. Water crossing practices

3. Emergency Response

Overall the meeting was very productive and we are confident we can move this forward. 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.”

You don’t have to read very far between the lines to suspect that the Alberta government has designed the pipeline safety review as a public relations exercise for the oil industry in the wake of some high-profile disasters.

But the truth is that the only way the pipeline industry can actually fix their public relations problem is to admit that they have a safety problem and look for solutions. The terms of reference for this review have been set far too narrowly to allow for that. According to the terms of the study, it focuses on whether Alberta regulations are consistent with industry “best practices” rather than on the actual state of Alberta’s pipeline system and regulatory oversight (i.e. industry “worst practices”).

Furthermore, by appointing the Energy Resource Conservation Board (which has been criticized for being too close to industry – as seen by the revolving doors between industry and regulator noted above) to lead the review, we have an agency essentially investigating itself. And that hardly inspires confidence.

If the Minister is serious, he will recognize that the public deserves a truly independent review that asks tough questions and not one where the companies being investigated get to approve who does the investigation and what it covers.

Timeline for Review of Alberta Pipeline Safety

May 19, 2012: There is an 800,000-litre spill from a well operated by Pace Oil & Gas Ltd. close to the border shared with the Northwest Territories.

June 7: A pipeline spill releases up to 475,000 litres of crude oil into the Red Deer River near Sundre, Alberta.

June 19: A third major spill within a month occurs at Enbridge’s Elk Point pumping station, leading to calls for an independent review of pipeline safety in Alberta.

June 25: A coalition of 17 landowner and environmental groups publish an open letter in four Alberta newspapers urging Premier Alison Redford to establish an independent review of pipeline safety in Alberta.

July 9: The Alberta Surface Rights Group, Greenpeace Canada, The Council of Canadians and the Sierra Club launch an independent pipeline spill tip-line.

July 10: The U.S. National Transportation Safety issues a highly critical report of Enbridge’s Edmonton-based response to a 2010 spill in Michigan.

July 12: A second open letter is sent to Premier Redford from 54 organizations.

July 16: Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes meets with pipeline company CEOS,

July 20: Greenpeace releases photos showing ongoing oil contamination from 2011 Rainbow Pipeline Spill

July 20: Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes announces a review of pipeline safety in Alberta, led by the Energy Resources Conservation Board.

August 8: Representatives of the Alberta Surface Right Group, the Council of Canadians and Greenpeace Canada send another open letter to the Premier outlining their concerns with the government’s announced pipeline review process. Concerns included the scope of the review being too narrow, the ERCB’s involvement in the review process and the lack of meetings with representatives of any of the 54 groups that called for the pipeline review despite the government already meeting with representatives of the oil and gas industry.

September 10: Alberta appoints the Calgary-based company Group 10 Engineering to assist ERCB with review.

October 23: Terms of reference for Greenpeace’s Freedom of Information request to ERCB on industry consultations related to pipeline safety review finalized.

November 1: Alberta government announces that there will be public consultations on pipeline safety in 2013. No details are available.