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[Photo © Kevin MacDonald]

On the evening of Jan. 20, Chief Connie Big Eagle of the Ocean Man First Nation was at a meeting when she received word of an oil spill on her reserve. She immediately drove to the site, which is near Stoughton in southeastern Saskatchewan, but it was already too dark to assess the damage. The next day she learned that 200,000 litres of oil had leaked into the land from a pipeline.

“It was a sad sight,” says Big Eagle. This spill is nearly the size of the Husky Energy spill in the in the North Saskatchewan River in July 2016 that affected water supplies of nearby communities.

The initial cleanup in the days following the spill required removing the trees in the area to access the oil.

“What started off as a 50 foot in diameter spill, is now a 35 by 45-metre cavity in our land,” says Big Eagle. “Now we have to begin the reclamation process and get our land back to the way it was, which will take years.”

Information listed on the Government of Canada Open Data site shows there were 123 pipeline-related incidents across the country in 2016, compared with 118 in 2015 and 88 in 2014. The average number of incidents from 2008-2016 is 121 annually. According to the National Energy Board (NEB), there are roughly 840,000 km of pipeline in Canada. The NEB regulates 73,000 km of those while the rest are regulated by provincial governments. The data below only reflects the pipelines regulated by the NEB.

The most common incident type in 2016 was what are called ‘substance spills,’ which accounted for 57 of the total incidents, or 47 per cent.

Google Fusion Map By: Elizabeth Keith

Keith Stewart, the head of Greenpeace Canada’s Climate and Energy campaign, has criticized the Saskatchewan government for not being transparent about oil spills. He argues there needs to be improvement in spill detection as well as communication with the public.

“When you look at the pipeline approval process, we’re told that there’s all this wonderful technology, and if there is a spill, we’ll know within 10 minutes and shut the pipeline down,” explains Stewart. “But in case after case, it’s often days before someone notices there’s been a spill, sometimes weeks. That isn’t good enough.”

He also called out the government for not providing people with adequate details when incidents occur.

It’s very hard to find out the record of spills and when they do happen, the information is almost impossible to get,” says Stewart.

“It seems like the government is more concerned with public relations than public safety.”

Deb Young, Media Relations Manager of Saskatchewan’s Ministry of the Economy, wrote in an email that the government is continuously working to ensure safety for people and the environment. She wrote that all operators follow up-to-date procedures for maintaining their pipeline infrastructure.

“It is also important to ensure the standards related to pipeline safety and operations are continuously reviewed and strengthened,” she adds.

As President Trump revives plans to move forward with the contentious Keystone XL Pipeline project, Big Eagle anticipates more resistance coming from Indigenous communities.

“It means more protesting, it means people’s rights are going to be stomped on. The environment is going to be affected,” says Big Eagle. “For others it means that employment is created.”

Big Eagle acknowledges that pipelines play an important role in our economy, and says it will be difficult to make the move towards green energy.

Most consumer vehicles are powered by gasoline. [Photo © Kevin MacDonald]

Most consumer vehicles are powered by gasoline. [Photo © Kevin MacDonald]

“We all drive, we all use electricity, and we all watch TV. It’s difficult to get millions of people to all say, ‘nope, not anymore,'” says Big Eagle. 

“We continue to consume, we’re all guilty of it. It’s hard to get out of because that’s the way of life.”

Young said in an email that Keystone XL project will benefit Saskatchewan’s economy in several ways. In addition to the anticipated creation of 2,200 jobs in Saskatchewan and Alberta, increasing Saskatchewan property tax revenue by $1.3 million annually, it will also clear up transport for other goods, she writes.

According to the Government of Saskatchewan, the combined value of oil and gas production in 2015 was $8.3 billion. Saskatchewan ranked first in Canada and fourth in the world for oil and gas investment, producing 486,000 barrels of oil per day and shipping 65 per cent of that production to the United States.

However, Stewart encourages the Trudeau government to think about what kind of environmental legacy they want to leave behind.

The Liberal government is set to move forward with the Keystone XL Pipeline Project. [Photo © Kevin MacDonald]

The Liberal government is set to move forward with the Keystone XL Pipeline Project. [Photo © Kevin MacDonald]

“We’ve got to make the choice as a society if we want to be serious about making that transition to a green economy, or if it’s going to be something we keep putting off to another day,” says Stewart.

“Our kids are not going to thanks us if we let them try and deal with this problem, because by then it will be too late.”

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