The agency that regulates Alberta’s energy industry to protect the environment has been keeping inaccurate data that dramatically downplay decades of spills of crude oil and saline water — reflecting profound dysfunction and pro-industry bias within the regulator, Alberta-based ecologist Kevin Timoney has concluded in a recent peer-reviewed book.
Hidden Scourge: Exposing the Truth about Fossil Fuel Industry Spills, published in October, found that data kept by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) on 74,975 spills from January 1975 to June 2019 are riddled with countless inaccuracies and lack important information.
Approximately 57,000 of those spills contained crude oil or saline water (or both), making them the most common types of spills during fossil fuel production, according to Timoney. The spills in the AER’s database vary greatly in size, ranging from less than one cubic metre up to at least 6,500 m3 in the case of crude oil, and 48,079 m3 in the case of saline water.
On average, close to two spills have occurred every day from 1975 through 2018 — for both types. And all aspects of the AER’s data necessary for gauging the spills’ impacts contain inaccuracies and omissions, Timoney concluded.
The AER said in an email that it has “prioritized improving our information technology systems,” but “legacy systems, like the [spills database], cannot be upgraded and will be considered for replacement on a priority basis. While we have made great progress in recent years in this area, we still have a lot of work ahead of us to modernize our systems.”
The inaccuracies in the database extend to data on how much crude oil and saline water are cleaned up after a spill, Timoney found. The AER reports tens of thousands of spills were perfectly recovered, “an unsupported finding so unlikely it can be dismissed as fiction,” Timoney writes. More than half of all crude oil spills in Alberta supposedly experienced perfect recovery — compared to 3.4 per cent of crude oil spills in North Dakota, Timoney found. Thousands of spills of saline water were also recorded as perfectly cleaned up, “rais[ing] questions of data validity.”
Timoney’s research appears to have “extrapolated meaning from … data entries in a way that the data was not intended to be interpreted,” the AER claimed. “For example, an entry of yes or no for whether product recovery occurred does not equal 100 per cent of product recovered.”
What people are reading
“That is pure obfuscation,” Timoney retorted in an email. “They don't have a yes/no entry for product recovery. Nor did you or I imply that yes/no equals 100 per cent. So, their statement is nonsensical.”
Timoney concluded that the regulator frequently underreports how many spills of crude oil and saline water have occurred and how much oil and saline water are spilled. Some large spills are missing from the database altogether, including a 1982 spill into the Athabasca River that caused the shutdown of a commercial fishery and reportedly made some inhabitants of Fort McKay sick. Additionally, spill locations in the database are often inaccurate by hundreds of metres and sometimes by tens of kilometres, Timoney says, making it extremely difficult to find spill sites.
The regulator’s data on the effects the spills have on ecosystems are also not credible, Timoney concluded. The AER routinely fails to record habitat damage and animal injuries and deaths even when the companies responsible for the spills document the devastation. This is the case for one 2013 spill of 15,363 m3 of saline water that damaged at least 42 hectares of land and killed hundreds of animals, according to records that include company reports Timoney acquired from the AER through an access-to-information request. By 2016, much of the spill site had been converted to open water, Timoney found: “Although the regulator found ‘no affect’ [sic] on habitat or wildlife, the ecological damage was severe enough to be mappable from satellite imagery.”
Since 2009, the regulator has even automatically categorized all spill sites as being not ecologically sensitive, which Timoney argues is “tantamount to disinformation and scientific nonsense.”
These inaccuracies, Timoney contends, are the product of “regulatory capture,” which is when the activities of a public regulator like the AER are oriented away from the public interest towards the private interests of the regulated corporations. The resulting inaccuracies aren’t necessarily due to wilful deceit, Timoney says. The problem is more structural in nature, the cumulative outcome of many interlocking factors — such as the regulator’s reliance on unverified industry data, its funding by the industry, the revolving door between the industry and AER leadership, the relative lack of scientific expertise within the AER, and so on.
The result, Timoney argues, is “an incompetent regulator controlled by a culture aligned with industry priorities.” Such captured regulators are “corrupt enterprises whose goal is to defraud the public of its financial and environmental security.”
I interviewed Timoney about his wide-ranging investigation and analysis, touching on everything from the ecological significance of the spills to his view on why science is critical to the flourishing of democracy. What follows is an edited transcript of this interview.
I want to understand the backstory of this investigation. What led you to scrutinize the AER’s data in such detail?
More than six years ago, I was writing a paper on the ecological impacts of the bitumen industry. During that time, a series of articles came out by an excellent investigative journalist named Leslie Young. She mentioned that the AER data were available, so I wrote to her and she sent me the full AER spills database. I started to dig into it out of curiosity. Because I was working on writing that paper, I pulled up the bitumen spills.
When I graphed spill volumes against recovery volumes, I observed that volumes recovered exactly equalled volumes spilled. That immediately raised red flags. I thought that can’t be true. I started to talk to the Keepers of the Water, who were concerned about the impacts of the industry in northwestern Alberta at the time. I told them about this phenomenon of suspect perfect spill recovery, and I wondered whether fieldwork should be done on the land of the Dene Tha First Nation to examine whether the spills were actually being cleaned up, as they were being told by the regulator and various companies. When I did the fieldwork, it was evident these areas that they had said were clean and healthy were anything but. I then realized that there were other unanswered questions and anomalies that I needed to examine. I felt if I didn't do it, no one else would. I had the knowledge to analyze those data, and I had the curiosity.
I started to look at crude oil spills and saline spills. It was a repeat of before, where I was finding these perfect relationships between spill recovery and the amount spilled, but on a scale 10 times larger. So then I thought, this is definitely a problem.
Your book documents the various kinds of environmental damage these spills can wreak on ecosystems. Over time, this damage can accumulate and lead to fundamental transformations of the ecosystems, causing, for example, a spruce forest to be degraded into a weedy meadow. Why, on a practical level, should we be concerned about these sorts of ecosystem transformations?
There is a loss of ecosystem goods and services, which are all the things that ecosystems provide for society: they clean our air, they purify our water, they provide biodiversity. When there’s a loss within an ecosystem of goods or services, the effects can be large. For example, there’s a multibillion-dollar bird-watching industry in North America. If you lose your birds, that industry suffers, but more importantly we can set a series of cascading effects in motion. Ecosystems can lose the ability of birds to regulate insects and pests. We lose our dispersal agents for many seeds, food webs are affected, soils are degraded, and biodiversity declines. Changes ripple through the system. Before you know it, you've got a different ecosystem that can't recover from stress.
Once the system is so damaged that it can’t heal itself, and we’re swimming through a sea of contaminants that we can’t see, this has ripple effects for the health of humans. Soil and groundwater contamination and chronic air exposures to methane, hydrogen sulphide, volatile organic compounds, and fine particulates have well-documented effects on human health. Contamination, both documented and undocumented, also presents tremendous costs to municipalities if they can’t use their lands. In Calgary, the government found to its horror that there were well over 1,000 contaminated sites within the city limits. And when the city would try to develop the land, it found the soils had been contaminated and required costly remediation. This widespread ecological disturbance presents uncertainty for governments and danger to society.
A large part of your research for your book was done with members of the Dene Tha First Nation. How have spills and fossil fuel exploitation more broadly affected the way the Dene Tha use and live off their land?
They talk to me a lot about this because it's the centre of their life. There are many areas where the Dene Tha see the contaminants left onsite, the dead vegetation, the residual oil and dead beavers. That tells them there are poisons out there, but the poisons are only part of the picture because they're also losing habitat. If they lose the habitat, then the marten decline, the fishers decline, the lynx decline, et cetera. In many areas, the moose are gone. That changes everything for them.
An anthropologist, Marc Stevenson, found that there was essentially a de facto extinguishment of their treaty rights because they could no longer exercise them. When the Dene Tha would go out on the land, the animals they would normally have hunted were gone. So they have to travel greater and greater distances from Chateh and other settlements. And there's this fear that has been planted in their mind: They're always worrying about whether animals are safe to eat. They will routinely not eat an animal if it doesn't look the way they expected it to look. They also no longer drink water from the bush, which shocked me: they carry in flats of bottled water on their quads or on their Ski-Doos or in their boats. I found it sad.
They have increased costs. There’s increased difficulty in moving across the landscape. They're eating fewer and fewer of their traditional foods because they can't get them, or if they do, they may not feel that they're safe to eat. They're eating more store-bought foods, which leads to declines in their nutrition and health. And because traditional activities have become more difficult and not as satisfying as a lifestyle, it's harder to pass on the skills to the next generation. It leads to a loss of traditional knowledge, and once you lose traditional knowledge, the foundation of the wisdom within the culture degrades.
The Dene Tha are extremely concerned with all the changes that have been taking place around them. And they felt abandoned by not only the AER, but also by the National Energy Board and by many companies, and that they're guinea pigs in a massive experiment.
Your book not only documents the diverse ways in which the regulator’s data on spills are allegedly inaccurate, but you also offer an explanation of why the data are inaccurate. You say that the inaccuracies aren’t necessarily the result of intentional deceit. Can you explain how the inaccuracies come about then?
It's a multi-step process: You start at the beginning, where an oil company employee is making an initial observation of a spill, and if they're not measuring the spill with an instrument, there's a psychological pressure to report a favourable result, since if they don't, they may lose their job. And then as that information passes up the chain of command from the information-gathers to the middle levels of management and higher, there's this constant winnowing process where the less favourable information is either ignored or it's spun and distorted. The people are not consciously thinking, “I've got to say this because if I tell the truth, I'm going to get in trouble.” It can occur at a subconscious level.
There is also a lot of incompetence. So much of the information initially written down is wrong, simply because the person doesn't have the training to provide an accurate answer. The people who are actually charged with recording how much was spilled and how much was recovered are not scientists. They’re operational people out there using vacuum hoses and bulldozers and tank trucks. They’re not trained to make a quantitative assessment, so they’re guessing.
You argue in your book that we should consider incompetence within the AER to be a feature of regulatory capture. Why should we consider it symptomatic of regulatory capture and not just reflective of an institution in disarray?
Regulatory capture has as its primary aim facilitating the goals of the regulated: the fossil fuel industry. The regulator does not have the production of accurate information as a goal. Its goal is to be a facilitator of exploitation, to maximize private profits, and to externalize the costs onto the public. So if that's your goal, then all these falsified and inaccurate data are exactly what they want. Accurate environmental data are going to come back and bite you because it's going to provide proof that the landscape is being damaged.
Any competent person would look at these environmental data and know that they’re not accurate. But since the AER is functioning exactly as it was designed, there’s no reason to fix the problem. The errors are so pervasive and persistent and obvious that the fact that they've existed for decades is a red flag. It says the regulator has no intention of improving their system of data-gathering because, for them, it works perfectly.
You argue in your book that science can help protect us from the threat that the corporate capture of important institutions poses to our democracy. Why do you believe that science is so important to maintaining a well-functioning democracy?
One of the beauties of science is that, at its best, it’s not concerned with opinion. It’s just concerned with finding the facts. Science is a tool to help us evaluate what’s false and what’s true. There's a tremendous amount of misinformation and disinformation out there. If a democracy is overtaken by misinformation, then the system breaks down. All of the things we depend on a functional government to provide — education, health services, clean water, clean air, the efficient use of our tax money to support the public interest — all of that falls apart.
The power of science is its ability to evaluate information. It's a tremendous power, but I think a lot of us are not using that power. We just tend to keep our heads down and not ask the bigger questions: Why are we doing this? And what is it facilitating? Part of the problem of disinformation and misinformation is simply that we’re not taught to think critically. And you don't have to be a scientist to realize the importance of critical thinking.
Alberta conservatives incompetent? That's unpossible!
Alberta conservatives are dishonest? That's unpossible!
Alberta conservatives take kick backs from their owners in the oil industry? That's unpossible!
This is an important story
This is an important story that demands action from the Alberta and federal governments on industry capture, as well as on the impacts to First Nations. We are sending oil and money around the world while we spoil our nest and trample indigenous rights.
I respectfully disagree that
I respectfully disagree that a significant component of this data misinformation isn't intentional deceit. The explanation for the "discrepancies" with facts include a) not wanting to lose a job from reporting facts; b) it's by design indicating Regulatory Capture; c) putting incompetent people in charge of some activities; and d) ...on and on. These are precisely some indications that deceit is deliberate. So why prevaricate on calling it like it is? His research clearly indicates (in my opinion) that intentional deceit is precisely a key part of the problem.
I wonder how many briefcases
I wonder how many briefcases full of cash were found by the conservative Alberta inspectors who signed off on all those perfect clean ups?