On Oil Spills, Alberta Regulator Can’t Be Believed: New Report

February 15, 2017

A study commissioned at the request of a First Nation says the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) has not reported accurately on the scale or impact of daily crude oil and salt water spills in the petro province.

The regulator has not provided “the public with accurate, credible, complete, unbiased and timely information and fails in its responsibility to protect the environment,” the study concluded.

Kevin Timoney, author of the report and an independent ecologist based in Alberta, called for the province’s auditor general to audit “the failure of the regulator.”

Timoney’s review of the regulator’s spill database found spills that were not recorded in the database at all, or didn’t include information on volume spilled.

Timoney also says that AER spill reporting lacked scientific credibility because it suggested there had been almost no damage to wildlife and animals in Alberta.

The problem is immense. Spillage from the province’s well pads, pipelines and batteries onto farmland, forests, muskeg and rivers is extensive and averages 1.7 crude oil spills a day and one salt water spill a day, says the report.

Aging oil wells typically produce more salt water than they do oil, or approximately 10 barrels of toxic water for every barrel of oil produced in North America. Produced water can also contain hydrocarbons and radioactive material.

In Alberta, industry is required to report any release of hydrocarbons into a waterway, or “any unrefined product release” that flows off an industry lease, or spills greater than 12 barrels on an industry lease site such as a well pad.

As part of his research, Timoney examined Alberta’s spill database over a 38-year period between 1975 and 2013 and visited major spill sites to gauge the impacts on water, land and plants.

In that time period, industry spilled at least 1.6 million barrels (256,712 cubic metres) of crude oil and more than five million barrels of salt water onto the land and waterways, according to Timoney’s analysis of the AER database.

That works out to 42,105 barrels of oil spilled every year across the province, whose landscape has been marked by 400,000 well sites and 415,000 kilometres of pipelines.

In contrast, Enbridge spilled more than 23,809 barrels of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It cost more than $1 billion to clean up the disaster.

But Timoney found that the AER’s spillage statistics did not reflect the real scale of the problem because of missing data and other issues.

“There are a lot of spills unaccounted for with no volume specified,” said Timoney. For example, he found many documented spills that appeared in newspapers aren’t in the database.

The AER database also does not include thousands of spills prior to 1975; spills from federally regulated pipelines; spills reported to Alberta’s environment ministry; or spills that classify oil or salt water as the second or third contaminant.

In addition, the regulator has often reported perfect recovery rates from most spills even though Timoney could find “no scientific studies” that documented total recovery of spilled oil or saline water on land. Saline spills can be more damaging to plants and vegetation because salts don’t degrade over time.

The regulator’s claim of full recovery is “patently false,” concluded Timoney in an interview.

Scientific studies show that there is impact, large or small, and that the recovery rate for spilled oil on land averages around 43 per cent while the recovery rate for ocean spills averages less than 15 per cent of the hydrocarbons recovered.

“Industry-reported impact rates from outside of Alberta are 30 to 50 times higher than those reported in Alberta,” says the report. “Evidence demonstrates that AER is failing to record animal deaths or injuries in its incident database.”

Timoney found, for example, that AER data indicated harm to habitat in less than one per cent of crude oil spills and even less for saline spills.

Yet a 2005 peer reviewed study in Oklahoma showed that 34 per cent of oil and saline water spills “resulted in reported injury to environmental receptors (surface water, crops or livestock, soil, fish, or wildlife).”

Peter Murchland, a public affairs manager with the AER, told The Tyee that it couldn’t verify exactly how Timoney was determining or defining perfect recovery. “As Mr. Timoney’s report has not been made publicly available, the AER cannot provide specific responses to the claims made regarding the accuracy of spill reporting data in the province.”

He added that the data set that Timoney used on spill response in the province between 1975 and 2013 “provides only a partial picture of spill clean up and damage to habitat as a result of spills in the province” and doesn’t tell the full story.

The regulator’s low estimates of damage from spills may be partly explained by the fact that other regulators such as Alberta Environment may have been involved in the process.

Prior to 2013 the board only tracked what was in its mandate and impacts on wildlife and wildlife habitat were not under the board’s jurisdiction, added Murchland.

“If the spill caused damage to a sensitive area or wildlife/livestock outside of the regulator’s jurisdiction, it may have been marked (for lack of a better option in the system) as not affected,” Murchland said.

The AER is largely funded by industry and chaired by a former energy lobbyist. In 2013, new legislation governing the regulator centralized duties formally carried by three ministries into the AER and dropped the board’s original mandate to “provide economic, orderly and efficient development in the public interest of the oil and gas resources in Alberta.”

Its job now is to provide “for the efficient, safe, orderly and environmentally responsible development of energy resources.”

“It is important to note that when the Government of Alberta brought together three regulators to form the AER in 2013, it was about building a regulator capable of ensuring public safety, protecting the environment and managing cumulative effects,” said Murchland.

But landowners who’ve fought the regulator in recent years say that is nonsense and that the agency is now more unaccountable than ever to the public.

Timoney attributed shortfalls in spill reporting to the board’s conflicted mandate: “The AER is there to serve industry and somehow try to protect the environment. But the AER serves their funding source which is industry.”

‘No record’ of spill

Timoney also visited 14 former oil spill sites in Alberta to measure the impact over time. At one site in northwestern Alberta where oil was released in 1998, the ecologist found the soil contaminated with 21.7 per cent crude oil (210,000 mg/kg).

“There is either no record of this spill in the AER database or the spill took place in 1998 and was later certified as cleaned up,” he told The Tyee.

Timoney adds that wherever he looked at spill sites, he found “detectable soil, water and vegetation impacts.”

Regulator claims about “cleanup recovery dates, indicating completion of oil spill cleanup, are managerial decisions that are unjustified by the available scientific data,” says the report’s abstract.

Dene Tha First Nation requested the spill study, while the Keepers of the Water helped to fund it. It took a year and a half to produce and will soon be published as a 200-page book.

The study reinforces the findings of a Global News investigation in 2013 on pipelines regulated by Alberta from 1975 to 2012. Using the same database it found that pipelines alone were responsible for 28,666 crude oil spills, an average of nearly 775 per year or two oil spills every day for a period of 37 years.

Given that farmland and waterways can take decades to recover from oil spills, “the industry is causing wholesale, long-term damage to ecosystems,” concluded the report.

Contamination of groundwater can take centuries or thousands of years to heal.

Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey on oil spills in Oklahoma “clearly show that significant amounts of salts from produced-water releases and petroleum hydrocarbons still remain in the soils and rocks of the impacted area after more than 60 years of natural attenuation.”

Alberta has a long and dramatic record of large oil spills. In 1970, Suncor spilled 50,000 gallons of synthetic crude into the Athabasca River while Imperial Oil flooded farmland west of Edmonton with 28,000 barrels of oil.

In recent years industry has authored more spectacular spills in Alberta, including an Apache-operated pipeline that dumped 9.5 million litres (60,000 barrels) of industrial wastewater into a muskeg in 2013.

Two years later, a Nexen pipeline released 5 million litres of bitumen wastewater into the boreal forest near Fort McMurray.

Regulators across North America employ a haphazard approach to reporting spills that rarely involves fines or enforcement orders. In North Dakota, industry must report all spills greater than one barrel while Oklahoma doesn’t require any notification unless a spill exceeds 10 barrels.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the U.S. petroleum industry spills anywhere from 10 to 25 million gallons of oil a year (793,650 barrels), and that these oil releases contaminate groundwater, damage farmland, harm wildlife, devalue property and threaten public health and safety.

Nigeria may have the worst record in the world for toxic oil spills. The volume of oil spilled in the Niger Delta ranges from 100,000 to 300,000 barrels of oil a year. It is considered one of the most oil spill vulnerable areas in the world.

A 2011 United Nations report warned that oil spills in Ogoniland alone had contaminated groundwater, killed mangrove swamps and exposed the local population to toxic hydrocarbons in the air and water. A billion-dollar clean up began last year.

In 2011 the New York Times reported that the oil pipeline network had spilled 110 million gallons of mostly crude oil since 1990. Most of the contamination occurred in three oil-exporting states: Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.


Teaser photo image: Aftermath of a crude oil spill in northwestern Alberta as documented by Kevin Timoney, July 20, 2016.

Andrew Nikiforuk

Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the oil and gas industry for nearly 20 years and cares deeply about accuracy, government accountability, and cumulative impacts. He has won seven National Magazine Awards for his journalism since 1989 and top honours for investigative writing from the Association of Canadian Journalists.

Andrew has also published several books. The dramatic, Alberta-based Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil, won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction in 2002. Pandemonium, which examines the impact of global trade on disease exchanges, received widespread national acclaim. The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, which considers the world’s largest energy project, was a national bestseller and won the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award and was listed as a finalist for the Grantham Prize for Excellence In Reporting on the Environment. Andrew's latest book, Empire of the Beetle, a startling look at pine beetles and the world’s most powerful landscape changer, was nominated for the Governor General’s award for Non-Fiction in 2011.

Tags: oil spills, pipeline spills