Agriculture

Scathing Expose on Sour Gas in Saskatchewan Kind of Isn’t One…

This was supposed to have been a post about a scathing expose put together by a massive team of investigative journalists, researchers and educators from across North America.

But it’s not.

I mean, at it’s core is an important story – sour gas from oil wells posing serious, even fatal health risks to Saskatchewan residents.

The stories I’m referring to, released earlier this week, were researched and produced by “an unprecedented collaboration of more than 50 journalists and editors from three Canadian media outlets, four journalism schools and a think tank.” There was cross-reporting on the various platforms of the Toronto Star, National Observer and Global News.

For the sake of simplicity and clarity in this post, we’ll call this massive group the “Media Group” or “Group”.

And don’t get me wrong, what this Media Group did was impressive. However, it also raised at least one of my eyebrows, because for every comment, story or Tweet I saw on the actual story, I saw another self-indulgent comment, story or Tweet from the Group about their “historic” consortium and the resulting stories.

This seemed really odd to me, because the story of sour gas in Saskatchewan was revealed by the Saskatchewan CBC two years ago. It’s not new.

In 2015 investigative reporter Geoff Leo, now widely regarded for his work blowing the GTH story wide open, released an investigative piece revealing the culture of secrecy and risk around the oil industry, the Saskatchewan government and sour gas emissions.

I mean, far be it from me to apologize for the provincial government, but I needed to pause and examine the entire picture, because there’s a huge difference between a bombshell report on a government/oil industry coverup, and a story that may have just felt like such to j-school students and Toronto-based journalists.

In other words, just because they didn’t know about sour gas doesn’t mean we didn’t, or that it’s fair or even accurate to paint this issue as a coverup.

Consider this piece, subtly titled That rotten stench in the air? It’s the smell of deadly gas and secrecy (also a letter-perfect description of my teenaged son’s bedroom). It opens by detailing the story of the Galloways, a family living in southern Saskatchewan whose lives have been greatly and negatively impacted by the oil wells that surround their farm – more specifically, the hydrogen sulphate (H2S), or sour gas, those wells emit.

That is super shitty, and I feel terrible for the Galloways. I’m sure you do as well.

According to the Group’s story:

“Documents obtained through freedom-of-information requests and from whistleblowers — internal correspondence, meeting minutes, presentations and inspection reports — disclose findings of failures in performance by oil and gas companies, including serious infractions, failed safety audits, daily H2S readings beyond provincial air quality standards and a death in 2014.”

Ok… but while the Group might have used FOIs and whistleblowers to uncover their “findings”, the Saskatchewan (and beyond) public already knew about them, because the CBC’s 2015 story had all of them, including the tragic and untimely H2S-related death in 2014 of Saskatchewan man Michael Bunz.

Emphasizing that they used FOIs and whistleblowers to write their story suggests the sour gas was a secret or a coverup, essentially confirmed by the story’s next line:

Yet regulatory standards remain largely unchanged and H2S incidents and risks remain hidden from the public.

Hidden?

Here’s a chunk from the Saskatchewan CBC’s decidedly not hidden 2015 story (emphasis mine):

“This is a big and serious problem,” said Ed Dancsok, the assistant deputy minister for the petroleum and natural gas division of the Ministry of the Economy. Dancsok said it’s been caused, in part, by a lack of focus by the industry and the ministry, which is the regulator. “There’s been sites that have not received the attention they should,” Dancsok told CBC’s iTeam. “So our stepped-up enforcement actions are starting to correct that.” Dancsok said Saskatchewan’s sour gas problem is now his “No. 1 priority.” 

The Group’s many, many stories, the most concise of which, IMO, is this one, details events going back to 2012. For example, one document obtained by the Group was a map of sour gas hotspots, which was part of an April 2012 PowerPoint presentation by the Saskatchewan government to CAPP.

Says the Group’s story:

Sources say ministry staff pushed to make the (map) data public but senior government officials said “there’s no goddamn way that is going to be released.”

And it wasn’t, which is indeed not cool.

But then consider this quote from the provincial government in that 2015 CBC story (which let’s be clear, the Media Group had access to, presuming they ever Googled the words “Saskatchewan sour gas”):

“The Ministry of the Economy said it tested 43 facilities in southeast Saskatchewan that were leaking sour gas “with average concentrations at 30,000 ppm.””

Yeah okay, it’s not a map from a 2012 Powerpoint, but that’s still pretty darn specific, no? Shouldn’t that 2015 subsequent disclosure of regional leaks, even to a different media outlet, still be in the Group’s story?

The CBC story continues:

“…the ministry audited 22 random wells in southeast Saskatchewan in the summer of 2013. “And 21 of them failed,” Dancsok said.”

So if you read this CBC story in 2015 and lived in southeast Saskatchewan, you pretty much knew it was time to buy a hazmat suit.

The Group’s story goes on about communication regarding sour gas between CAPP and the provincial government from 2012 to 2014ish, but does not disclose anything the government said about it to the media or in the Legislature in 2015. Their story references a “secret ministry report” which contains information that appears to match what an official from the same ministry freely stated on the record to CBC. In fact, the CBC story tells the tale of a Saskatchewan family who received a phone call from the ministry warning them of sour gas levels at a nearby oil well site.

After the CBC’s story was released in April of 2015, Minister Bill Boyd was questioned by the NDP in Question Period about the disclosure, or lack thereof, of sour gas. Boyd, as per usual, didn’t have any answers, but this highlights that this issue has been on the radar, even in the Legislature, for over two years. In 2015, subsequent to the CBC story, similar stories on sour gas, including information and quotes from the provincial government, ran in Estevan, the Western Producer, and in a detailed Q&A with Dancsok in Pipeline News a month later.

Here’s my point… I do have one, and it’s not that sour gas isn’t a problem, or that the government of Saskatchewan and the oil industry are transparent and forthright.

My problem is that if you only consumed the Group’s reporting (and initially I was totally guilty of that too), here is what you’ve been led to believe:

  1. In 2012 the provincial government refused to release a map of sour gas hotspots and a teenager on the Galloway farm almost died from sour gas poisoning;
  2. the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) internal response to the Galloway incident uncovered a whole plethora of sour gas problems, failures and general bullshit, which smaller oil companies didn’t want to deal with;
  3. in 2013 the Saskatchewan government sent a letter to every oil and gas operator in Saskatchewan telling them to get their sour-gas-shit together or face consequences;
  4. in April of 2014, the government again refused to release a map of sour gas hotspots, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and Explorers and Producers Association of Canada (EPAC) apparently sent letters to the provincial government rejecting government-proposed fines – up to a $1 million – for sour gas leaks. The proposal was later scrapped;
  5. in May 2014 a Saskatchewan resident died from sour gas poisoning;
  6. all of this has been covered up by the provincial government until October 2017, when it was revealed by the Group’s report.

All of that is true…except No. 6.

The reality is that the sour gas issue, and the shitty communications response, or lack thereof, from the Saskatchewan government, was brought to light by first the Saskatchewan CBC, and then other Saskatchewan media outlets and the provincial NDP, two years ago.

So jacked-up rhetoric like this, from the media and about the media, needs to just calm down:

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Because it’s sparking inaccurate mindsets in the Group’s audience, like this:

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…instead of keeping the focus on the inadequate (though not “hidden”) information, communications and response from the Saskatchewan government and their corporate funders in the oil industry, as well as the legitimate concerns raised by the Group about whether or not, and where, the numerous sour gas leaks reported to the Saskatchewan government have been recorded, tracked and rectified.

Maybe Patricia Elliot said it best, in response to Leo himself, who finally broke down and Tweeted in response to the breathless praise of the Group’s story:

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 4.34.51 PM

Bingo, Ms Eliott nails it – framing what the Group wrote through the lens, or at least including the lens, of the CBC stories that surfaced in 2015 creates appropriate and fulsome context for the sour gas story.

Instead, the self-promotion of, and emphasis on the journalists and media outlets involved in the Group has hijacked the narrative, in part for some and totally for others, such as the media-consumer/Tweeter I highlighted above.

I’m no journalist, but I’m pretty sure that’s never the goal.

Regardless of what happened between 2012 and 2015, what Saskatchewan residents need to see now is collaborative journalism from this Media Group – or any, for that matter – on whether or not the provincial government did the things it promised it would when this issue became public in 2015.

In the meantime, once you’re done here, read what Postmedia columnist Murray Mandryk wrote here. He totally cuts through the crap and crystallizes what’s really important: the stark contrast between the communications strategy the government uses for any number of other departments (is there a poor poached moose in Saskatchewan that didn’t get its own news release?) and the oil industry. It’s not acceptable, and regardless of how we got here and who brought us, it’s time it’s taken seriously.

For those of you who care, I’m Tammy Robert. I’m a writer, but pay the bills consulting in media and public relations. Email me anytime at tammyrobert@live.ca

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4 replies »

  1. I think you misconstrued my tweet. What I meant was, yes, Geoff Leo did a great report that brought part of the story to public attention in 2015 for the first time. And now with the Star-Observer-Global-J-School articles, we can see what was going on behind the scenes in the CAPP board room and joint govt-industry meetings when these and other incidents were being discussed, three years beforehand.
    They also reveal for the first time the inner conflicts in the Ministry over what the public should know, and the suppression of data that had been developed for public use. Since the CBC report, the ministry has maintained steadfastly that the situation is under control – yet now we learn that internally, there was a rising sense of alarm that the situation was not under control. And in 2017, through multiple trips to southeast Sask, knocking on doors, and bringing in a team of scientists to independently monitor leaking tanks with specialized cameras, the articles provide substantive evidence the problems have persisted since 2015, when this is supposed to have become ‘old news’. By combing through hundreds of inspection reports the team was able to quantify an alarming number of safety audit failures in the past year. Further, the article reveals the existence of an internal draft of new fines, and the industry correspondence that rejected it.
    Just because some politicians say, “This is old news, we’ve already addressed it” doesn’t mean that is so, and we should just collectively look away and move on. Because a story is reported once doesn’t mean the digging should ever stop and not be expanded. The problems remain a public concern in 2017, as this investigation revealed through hundreds of hours of report-combing and door-knocking, much of it done by students who hardly deserve to have their moment to shine rained upon. They helped reveal there was and is much,much more to this story. And if any journalist wants to keep digging for more, I would never begrudge them that. The point of journalism is not who did what first, but to keep learning more, seeking the truth, and holding power to account.

    Like

  2. Excellent points made Trish Elliot. When one considers that there are other issues in the oil patch such as overuse of water, disposal of fracking wastes, cleaning up old wells and burning off methane there is lots of room for more great reporting. Hope the Star/Observer consortium continues.

    Like

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