This was supposed to be a very different post.
With recent news of another oil spill in Saskatchewan, the spotlight is back on the regulation of our province’s extensive network of energy-industry pipelines, flowlines, wells and whatever else they use to extract and transport the stuff we rely on.
This time the spill was on the Ocean Man First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, and based on eyewitness stories, it may have been leaking for days. The pipeline, which reportedly spilled approximately 200 000 litres of crude oil into a slough, is owned by Tundra Oil & Gas Limited, a division of James Richardson & Sons Ltd., Canada’s biggest agri-business.
The Ocean Man spill is slightly less in volume than the July 2016 Husky oil spill of 225 000 litres, and is thankfully also less detrimental, if you can call it that, because unlike the Husky spill, no water sources were affected.
It’s still totally shitty though. You don’t have to be a Greenpeace-fanatic to acknowledge that oil spills are awful for everyone involved, but especially those whose lands and lives are impacted the most.
There have been thousands of spills in Saskatchewan’s modern energy-extraction history. Given the current scrutiny of the issue, combined with record oil production in the last decade, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the historical numbers.
Called the Saskatchewan Upstream Oil and Gas IRIS Incident Report, the government website describes it as a record of “incidents that occurred since November 14, 2015”. However, the 18 000+ row spreadsheet appears to contain a record of every spill from 1990 (well, there’s one from 1985) to present.
IRIS stands for the Integrated Resource Information System, which was launched in November 2015 and is the Government of Saskatchewan’s “online business portal for the oil and gas industry to complete regularly performed business activities and regulatory reporting with the province.”
In other words, IRIS is a self-policing tool relying on the oil and gas industry to report itself.
Every Wednesday IRIS aggregates and spits out an updated IRIS Incident Report. You’re free to download the latest IRIS incident spreadsheet and analyze it yourself, but this is the information I found (I used the January 24, 2017 version) that (initially) really surprised me:
Since 1990, 15 of the Top 20 oil spill incidents in Saskatchewan occurred under the previous NDP government, or 9.8 million litres of the 13.6 million total litres spilled in those incidents.
Neither the 2016 Husky or the recent Ocean Man spill make it into that Top 20, though the Husky incident was number 21.
From January 1, 1999 to January December 31, 2008, aka the nine years prior to the SaskParty forming government, 31.4 million litres of oil were spilt under the NDP government. From January 1, 2008 to today, or since the SaskParty formed government, 23.3 million litres of oil have been spilt.
That means that since the SaskParty took over, and despite oil production setting a record in 2013 of 487 400 barrels per day (up from 430 000 per day in 2007) the volume of oil spilled in Saskatchewan has decreased by approximately 25%.
It’s surprising that the SaskParty hasn’t aggregated and shared this information on its own, because by all accounts a reduction in oil spills of that scope is good news. Right?
See, I considered leaving it there, but after thinking about it, I realized that volume alone is a poor indicator, as one big spill could easily skew the numbers. The frequency of the incidents should also be taken into consideration, so I did that next.
Overall, reported spills of all substances have remained relatively consistent, except for a curious downward trend between 2014 and 2016.
There’s no reason to believe that the drop in incidents after 2014 correlates to decreased production due to lower resource prices, because according to the provincial government’s Laurie Pushor, oil production in 2015 went down by less than 6%, and remained at levels higher than they were 2012. The numbers aren’t yet out for 2016, but forecasters weren’t predicting any significant decline over 2015.
Either way, according to IRIS, there were only 623 oil or gas related spills in Saskatchewan in 2016, the lowest number since 2007.
In fact, nevermind 2007 – according to IRIS, that’s lower than the number in 1997.
The numbers get even weirder when you look at oil spills only.
I can see NO possible way that the number of oil spills in Saskatchewan tumbled to less than 33% of the number of spills in 2008.
At the very least because if they had, the SaskParty would be singing about it from the rooftops.
No recent volume reporting cutoff has been introduced – not that I can find. The lowest volume of oil reported spilt in 2016 was 1 litre, less than the minimum reported in some previous years.
If it’s not feasible that the number of oil spills in Saskatchewan has plummeted in the last two years, which I don’t believe it is – what else has changed?
The reporting system.
Remember, the Saskatchewan government implemented IRIS, which relies solely on the oil and gas companies to police and report themselves, in November 2015.
This theory doesn’t necessarily make sense to me, because prior to IRIS implementation, energy companies were completing reports by hand. You’d think having the ability to submit reports online would make it easier to do so, perhaps even increasing reporting rates.
So, back to the original purpose of this blog post: I wanted to tell you that oil spills in Saskatchewan have decreased in the last nine years.
I can’t say that anymore.
Instead, I believe that for some reason, the Saskatchewan government is missing hundreds of oil spill reports from 2015 and 2016, and we need to know why.
There’s other important information missing as well.
By law (Saskatchewan’s Pipeline Regulations Act), the energy company responsible for the spill, regardless of substance, is required to advise the provincial government within 5 days of the incident. They are to submit their Detailed Report within 90 days, and if applicable, their Reclamation Report within six months.
According to IRIS, since January 2008, 335 Detailed Reports have not been submitted to the provincial government. Over half of those involve oil spills. 407 Reclamation Reports are also missing.
In both cases Husky Energy has the most reports outstanding, with Penn West Petroleum right on their heels, followed by Crescent Point and Canadian Natural Resources.
Oddly, Husky still owes the government its Detailed and Reclamation Reports for the July 2016 spill, according to IRIS.
They released this report in November 2016, but there’s more detail in my son’s report card, so I’m not sure if it counts.
(Incidentally, IRIS also has the Husky (self-reported) incident Occurrence Date down as July 20, 2016. This, despite their insistence that the leak was not detected until July 21, 2016.)
The best case scenario here, and it’s not very good, is this relatively new IRIS system isn’t kicking out an accurate public report on oil and gas incidents.
Because otherwise, something has happened in the last few years that has caused these energy companies to no longer feel obligated to report all of their spills, or they’ve been given reason to believe they don’t have to.
On November 28, 2016 Saskatchewan Energy and Resources Minister Dustin Duncan introduced new legislation on pipeline regulation.
In addition to pipelines, the Saskatchewan government will begin retroactively licensing the more than 80 000 flowlines in the province, which have been exempt until now. The province will also empower civil servants with increased inspection, investigation and audit abilities, as well as update the penalty structure.
This is all well and good, but meaningless if the accountability measures for an industry that remains largely self-regulated are not in place. Unless I am wrong – and it does happen (all the time) – right now they’re not.
Surely I can’t be the only one in Saskatchewan analyzing these reports, identifying this anomaly. Who else has, and what are they doing about it?
For those of you who care, I’m Tammy Robert. I’m a writer, but pay the bills specializing in media and public relations. Email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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