Government good at changing mind

Pipeline safety review latest reversal from Redford’s team

By Graham Thomson, July 21, 2012 11:08 AM

Would the real Alberta government please stand up?

Or at least wave so we can recognize you?

It’s getting to the point where I’m not sure the Alberta government I spoke to last week will be the same Alberta government that I’ll speak to next week. Heck, I’m not even sure if it’s the same government day to day.

On Friday, for example, the Alberta government announced it had ordered an independent review into pipeline safety. The announcement made by Energy Minister Ken Hughes is an idea that could help restore the public’s confidence in a system that has suffered three recent accidents, including the spill of 475,000 litres into the Red Deer River.

But the government that made Friday’s announcement of an independent review is not the same government that said just last month a review wasn’t needed. “The systems that we have in place today are appropriate,” said Hughes in June. “The energy industry currently is accountable already for every foot of pipeline that they have, and they conduct themselves with that accountability under the regulatory framework that we have in Alberta.”

At the time, Premier Alison Redford said she was “certainly not opposed” to a review of pipeline safety but, like Hughes, she didn’t want to do anything until after the Energy Resources Conservation Board had completed its investigation into the three recent spills.

The government stuck to its guns the past month, saying a review wasn’t needed. As late as Thursday, Redford seemed to be rejecting the notion. “I will tell you that I am not going through the next four years of this government responding every single time that something happens to a call for an independent inquiry,” Redford told reporters. “We have to have confidence in the institutions that are part of government. They’re there for a reason and they’ve done a good job up until now.”

That was Redford on Thursday.

This was Hughes on Friday: “It’s actually quite timely right now to look at the pipeline issue.”

What happened? Why “no” one day and “yes” another?

There are at least three reasons. One is public pressure, notably a coalition of landowner and environmental groups that published an open letter to the premier in newspapers demanding an independent review of pipeline safety after this year’s spills.

Then there was the damning report from the United States government on how Enbridge bungled a huge spill of oil from its transcontinental pipeline in Michigan. Even though that spill didn’t occur in Alberta, the pipeline’s operations are headquartered in Edmonton, and it didn’t help the industry or Enbridge in particular to have the company’s staff referred to as the “Keystone Kops.”

Of particular concern to the Alberta government was Enbridge’s role as operator of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would ship Alberta’s bitumen to Kitimat, B.C., for transport to Asia.

Public confidence was being undermined and the government had to do something. So, Hughes called a meeting a few days ago with leaders in the pipeline industry. “We had a very candid conversation about how we all need to up our game to set the bar higher when it comes to pipelines,” said Hughes. “The key outcome of that meeting earlier this week was that we all need to do more.

Industry has to do its part, government has to do its part as well.”At stake here was Alberta’s environmental reputation. Again. The Alberta government is already fighting a rearguard action to rebuild faith in the oilsands industry that includes setting up an unprecedented “world-class” environmental monitoring system in co-operation with the federal government.

Now, it’s the integrity of the pipeline system under attack. “We need to be able to provide Albertans, Canadians and the international community with assurance that pipelines are safe,” said Hughes.

Not coincidentally, just minutes after Hughes held his news conference, Enbridge made an announcement of its own, pledging to spend an additional $500 million on its $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline to make it safer through more inspections and increasing the thickness of the pipe at river crossings.

But let’s get back to the apparent contradiction between Redford saying “no” to an independent inquiry on Thursday only to have Hughes say “yes” to an independent review on Friday.

Didn’t they talk to each other beforehand?

The answer here is that Redford was making a point of rejecting an inquiry into every individual spill while Hughes was announcing a review into overall pipeline safety.

It’s a subtle but crucial difference that saves Redford from the appearance of being upstaged by her energy minister.

Having said that, the government did reverse its position from a month ago. Of that there is no doubt.

Reversing direction is becoming such a habit for the government that cabinet ministers should come equipped with backup lights. It’s becoming something of a trend for the Alberta government to reject taking action one day – on forcing MLAs to give back money earned on a “no-meet” committee, for example – only to change its mind in the face of public pressure.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Redford’s government is not only proving itself to be different from the governments of her predecessors. When events and public pressure dictate, the government is even proving to be different from itself, week to week.

Alberta Progressive Conservatives might have been in power 41 years, but the Redford Progressive Conservatives are still evolving.

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