|July 29, 2014|
Emails show secrecy on federal oilsands probe
|Environment Canada's enforcement branch asked a spokesman to "limit information" given to reporters about how long it took to launch a federal investigation into a serious Alberta oilsands leak last summer.|
The comments were included in more than 100 pages of emails obtained by the Star that were generated in response to questions from journalists last summer about the mysterious leak in Cold Lake, Alta., that now totals about 1.2 million litres of bitumen emulsion, a mixture of heavy oil and water.
The incident itself was not publicly disclosed until a report by the Star in July 2013. More than 100 animals died near the site of the spill, which continues to release heavy oil above the surface, one year later.
The company, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, had reported three other leaks in May and June 2013 from nearby sites using technology involving high-pressure steam in deep wells to pump out bitumen, the heavy oil mixed with sand beneath forests in northern Alberta.
After the spill came to light, reporters began pressing both provincial and federal authorities for more information. One of the media requests, sent to Environment Canada on Aug. 15, asked a series of questions about law enforcement in the oilsands and whether the ministry's officers were at the site to investigate.
The questions and the proposed answers from the ministry's enforcement branch triggered a flurry of emails between public relations specialists, assistant deputy ministers and a Justice Department lawyer. It also led up to an Aug. 26 briefing, requested by the office of Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
On Aug. 28, the department responded to the media questions, confirming it had opened an investigation. The next day, the department asked Aglukkaq's office to approve sending additional details to reporters confirming it learned about the incident on June 27 and that its enforcement officers arrived at the site on July 3.
The enforcement branch then suggested withholding dates.
"I think we should limit the information to only the date we received notification," wrote Kevin Buerfeind, a director of wildlife enforcement for the region in an Aug. 29 email. "The date an investigation is opened is arbitrary --- is it when the officer formed reasonable grounds or the date he actually put in the paperwork (?) --- they can be different."
On Aug. 30, Environment Canada declined to send information about the dates, instead resending the Aug. 28 media statement that confirmed it had opened an investigation.
The department confirmed to the Star last week that an investigating officer created the CNRL investigation file on Aug. 30 in the department's database. Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said the enforcement branch found grounds to launch an investigation "around" July 10.
He said the courts have generally accepted that most investigations begin when an officer determines there are reasonable grounds, not when he or she opens the computer file. Johnson added that the officers doing on-site work don't always have access to computers and could be delayed in creating a new file for cases such as these depending on their workload.
He also said it was a normal law enforcement practice to withhold other information, such as the on-site inspection report, in order to preserve the integrity of an investigation.
One year earlier, Johnson had rejected some of the answers approved by the chief enforcement officer at Environment Canada, Gord Owen. Johnson wrote that the statements needed to be "beefed up" due to direction from the Aug. 26 briefing with Aglukkaq's office.
"Folks, what you've provided here is the exact same response as we already gave to MO (minister's office) on Monday. As I recall, the result from the briefing yesterday was that the . . . responses were to be beefed up --- but this is no change," Johnson wrote on Aug. 27, in response to colleagues providing him with suggested answers to questions from the media. "Please advise ASAP, MO wants this resolved."
Aglukkaq declined to comment, but her office sent the Star a statement that its staff "regularly request briefings on issues that are unfamiliar" and that "beefed up means adding more information to the response."
NDP environment critic and Halifax MP Megan Leslie said the correspondence shows that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is "hard-wired" to see all issues as a communications exercise.
"They just logically go to media relations instead of looking at the facts or what the issues are," said Leslie in an interview. "The responses (to media) don't need to be beefed up. Our environmental enforcement needs to be beefed up. The investigation process needs to be beefed up."
Liberal environment critic John McKay said the case seems to be another example of Harper's government favouring one industrial sector over others, while attempting to keep news about spills and environmental damage "secret" for as long as possible.
"It is upsetting that the Harper government's lack of transparency and disregard for our wildlife, water and environment is something we have come to expect," said McKay, who represents Scarborough-Guildwood in Parliament.
The provincial Alberta Energy Regulator issued a report on its ongoing investigation this week, maintaining restrictions on CNRL's operations at the site, while blaming weaknesses in its steam injection practices and the wells themselves for causing the damage.
When asked if it knew how to stop the ongoing flow of bitumen, CNRL told the Star it had covered cracks with containment structures and a system to collect the oil. It also said it had completed clean up of areas damaged by the spill in 2013. CNRL declined to comment on whether it had violated any federal environmental laws, noting that the matter was under investigation.
Environment Canada declined to say whether enforcement officers were supervising the company's ongoing efforts to capture the leaking oil. But an Alberta Energy Regulator spokesman said it no longer needed to have a permanent presence because it was satisfied the containment structures could protect the environment and handle additional bitumen that was flowing at rates "too small to measure."
The provincial regulator had spent years investigating a similar CNRL leak in 2009, and environmental groups have speculated that this underground steam technology used in the oilsands is unstable.
"The seriousness suggests that the federal and provincial reviews should be broadened to include the entire high-pressure operation at Canadian Natural," said Erin Flanagan, an analyst at the Alberta-based Pembina Institute, a research organization that specializes in energy and environment policies.
"Environment Canada and the Alberta Energy Regulator must send a message to industry that this type of irresponsible behaviour isn't acceptable. We hope they will hand down a penalty that is proportionate to the scale of the accident."
The new revelations about the secrecy surrounding Environment Canada's investigation come one week after the Star reported the department had heavily censored a memo --- requested through access to information legislation --- that touted the effectiveness of an environmental group that had its federal funding yanked.
Environment Canada later said it reviewed the document as required by law prior to its release, but blamed the censorship on an "administrative oversight." The department said it corrected its mistake following an investigation by the office of the federal information commissioner.