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Brad Wall: A day late and a dollar short on Husky's Prince Albert pipeline spill

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Brad Wall

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Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall's lame defence yesterday morning of his strange inaction after the Prince Albert oil pipeline rupture on July 20 was an example of what's colloquially known as being "a day late and a dollar short."

If Saskatchewan’s premier is the ideal spokesperson for Western Canada's energy industry, as Alberta's Wall-smacked conservatives keep insisting, we're in big, big trouble that will result in us never getting another pipeline to foreign markets built in this country.

So, if you're a supporter of the energy industry -- one of those guys who goes around in a black "I 'HEART' Oil Sands" T-shirt -- you'd better get down on your knees and pray for the re-election of Rachel Notley and the NDP you've been working so hard to unseat.

I admit I'm trying to get up the noses of Alberta's right-wingers when I say this -- but I'm not just trying to get up their noses.

Wall and other supporters of pipeline construction -- and that would include Notley, the New Democratic Party premier of Alberta -- are right when they say pipelines are the safest way to move petroleum products over long distances, especially when the only practical alternatives are rail and diesel trucks.

But it's hard to blame residents of provinces like British Columbia and Quebec for having grave reservations just the same when the country's self-appointed number-one pipeline spokesperson's reaction to a 250,000-litre spill of oil and solvent into the North Saskatchewan River near Prince Albert -- imperilling safe water supplies for Saskatchewan's third-largest city and numerous other communities nearby -- was to disappear from sight for a week and then refuse to discuss the environmental impact of the disaster when he finally appeared at the Legislature in Regina to chit-chat about it.

"This is not an optimal situation," Wall informed a polite group of local journos as they gently tossed him a few softballs before he strode off to his office. Well, gee, Premier, thanks for that data!

Right now, he told the mild-mannered reporters, job number one is getting clean water to the north-central Saskatchewan communities that don't have it thanks to the big hole in Calgary-based Husky Energy Inc.'s pipeline. We'll study the environmental impacts later, thank you very much -- and study them, and study them, so don't expect any meaningful information any time in this geological era.

"We'll get into the debate about pipelines," he said yesterday, "at a later date."

Wall was also quick to say Husky has promised to pay the entire cost of the spill, but if there were any questions about how those costs would be calculated on the CBC's live feed of the brief hallway scrum he deigned to hold, they weren't evident at this end of the wire in Edmonton.

According to the CBC's online report yesterday afternoon, Wall was "reluctant to deal with that topic right now, out of concern the media will emphasize only that aspect of his remarks." That may have been true enough, but it's a disgrace the Saskatchewan Legislative Press Gallery just let that weak excuse slide.

As for Husky's conduct, "I can't put my finger on some egregious error or misjudgment that I would say they made or that officials are telling me they made," the Saskatchewan premier also told the respectful flatlands scribes. Aside, I guess, from actually bothering to turn off the flow of oil and solvents when company officials encountered indications they might have had a problem, instead of just letting it pump on into the river for another 14 hours.

In case Wall and some of you missed it, this level of environmental responsibility is exactly why residents in other parts of Canada don't trust Prairie pipeline advocates to deliver on their frequent pledges of tough standards, constant scrutiny and vigilant concern for the environment.

Despite Wall's claim Saskatchewan's environment "is precious to all of us," what actual evidence is there in his actions and inaction that would make anyone think it's so?

Residents of the provinces who are being asked to bear the risks and get none of the rewards of pipelines legitimately fear that if there’s a breach, nothing will happen while the pollution pulses out of the pipe and into the river or the sea. They also suspect that in the event of another rupture, conservative politicians in the oil producing regions -- and heaven knows, we pray it's just the conservative ones -- will obfuscate, stall and pretend no one's at fault.

So, if you were looking for a formula to guarantee no more pipelines get built in this country, Wall's would be the best possible. Because whatever you say about the disadvantages of rail cars and big trucks, once a pipeline gets built in someone's back yard, there's nothing they can do to make it go away. Ever.

The Saskatchewan premier's performance yesterday illustrates why Brad Wall is the worst possible spokesperson for pipelines and the worst possible example for Alberta's conservatives if they are serious about getting this province’s oil to foreign markets through the jurisdictions that surround us on all sides -- especially while oil prices continue to languish in the sub-sub-basement.

There is only one approach to building more Canadian pipelines that has any chance of succeeding -- and it's far from guaranteed -- and that's the effort to win social license being made by Notley's NDP government.

You can say it ain't so, you can be as rude as you like about it, and you can praise Wall's performance to the skies if you wish, but you're only deluding yourself. Canadians outside this region are not fooled.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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