Culture of secrecy pervasive in Alberta oil/gas industry, regulator

“I’ve said contrarian or progressive things to traditional oil and gas media and immediately get text messages or emails saying, ‘Oh my gosh, what have you done?’” – Janet Annesley, chief sustainability officer, Kiwetinohk Energy.

Finding Alberta oil and gas insiders like Annesley willing to speak on-the-record is tough. The industry and the institutions that support it, like the Alberta Energy Regulator, are not transparent. In fact, a great deal of effort goes into restricting access to information and managing external communication, especially with the media. 

I’ve been told “if I talk publicly about (fill in the blank), I’ll never work in this industry again” on many occasions. Journalists only reluctantly grant anonymity, but reporting on the Alberta oil and gas sector requires more frequent protection of sources. Professionals believe they will be punished for airing the industry’s dirty laundry. 

“I do think there’s a power structure in many companies that prevents people from being as outspoken as I am,” she says “I’m really blessed that I’ve had the opportunity to work for great people who allow me to do these types of interviews and express my views.”

Annesley is a unicorn. She has almost three decades of experience, starting with Shell Canada, then VP of communications for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, two years as chief of staff to then Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, senior VP with Husky Energy, and now part of legendary industry veteran Pat Carlson’s team at Kiwetinohk. She is a respected voice in Alberta and on the national stage.

Even so, throughout our interview you can hear her carefully navigating her way through potential landmines. In this quote she was speaking specifically about Alberta news media, but it echoed her comments about the Alberta oil and gas echo chamber: “You have to be so careful as to what you say.”

Mandy Olsgard, a former senior toxicologist with the AER and now an independent risk assessor who frequently works with northern Alberta indigenous communities affected by the oil sands, has experienced first hand the penalties for speaking up.

“I didn’t view myself as a dissenter,” she told Energi Media. “As a technical expert, I’ve tried to work for years behind doors with the AER and companies to improve systems, to better evaluate the environmental performance, to protect risks to humans in the environment.”

“It’s just one roadblock after another. I was bringing my findings forward to industry on behalf of my clients and met with huge hesitancy. What I thought would be simple solutions to increase protection of the environment or people was met with closed doors. Ultimately, I was pushed out of technical working groups, accused of trying to make more work (and more money) for myself when I’ve requested reports to review.”

Olsgard’s clients are Indigenous people who live next door to Canada’s largest industrial complex, the oil sands. Most Indigenous communities have entered into impact and benefit agreements that provide important economic benefits, sometimes including cash payments, and protection of critical rights. 

But they also serve as golden handcuffs because they include non-disclosure agreements. Based on my conversations with Indigenous representatives, those agreements restrict public comment or opposition to issues that might violate inherent rights. Time and again Indigenous representatives have had to decline interviews about serious operational problems because they might breach those agreements.

The companies will argue that they share a great deal of sensitive and proprietary information with Indigenous communities that, if shared publicly, would put them at a competitive disadvantage. Perhaps so, but is the public interest served by this secrecy?

That secrecy spills over into how oil and gas companies (especially the big ones) and the AER manage the flow of public information. They do it very, very carefully. 

Just ask Drew Yewchuk, a public interest lawyer with the University of Calgary who publishes frequently about the AER. I’ve interviewed him many times and he regularly regales me with stories about his difficulties prying information from the clutches of the regulator. You can read about one instance in his blog post, Freedom of Information: Brokering Access for Records on Oil and Gas Liability Management at the AER.

“The tradition of secrecy in Westminster style bureaucracy is keeping Albertans from understanding their government and helping government evade scrutiny and, ultimately, accountability for their decisions,” he concludes.

Here’s one example of how this culture of oil and gas industry secrecy plays out in real life. 

A few months ago, an oil and gas reclamation engineer told me horror stories about the Alberta Energy Regulator being so short-handed that staff were not available to advise companies about their strategies to reclaim contaminated oil well sites. As a consequence, wells are being returned to “monitoring” status for years instead of being cleaned up. 

The source would not go on the record because they feared for their career.

But this is a helluva news story. As recently as 2020, the AER reported 97,000 suspended/inactive wells (currently 80,000). How many of those wells are highly contaminated and a threat to human health or local water tables? Probably more than a few. The AER says that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of reclaimed wells are low-cost dry holes or gas wells instead of oil wells, which are much more costly to clean up. To date, as far as I know, no reclamation professional will speak on the record, so the story goes unreported. 

And let’s not forget the most recent example: the leak of tailings pond water from Imperial Oil’s Kearl plant that the company discovered in May, 2022, reported to the AER, but then neither the regulator nor the company bothered to tell downstream Indigenous communities, the Government of the Northwest Territories (which has an agreement with Alberta that requires notification), or even the energy minister until nine months later.

And the only reason anyone found out was because in February, 2023 5.3 million litres of wastewater spilled from a containment pond and the incident was serious enough that both the AER and Imperial were forced to come clean. Indigenous leaders were outraged. The company and the AER were hauled into a House of Commons committee to explain. The guilty parties promised to do better. The public quickly moved on to other crises.

The sad thing about the Kearl incidents? Plenty of people were mad, but no one seemed especially surprised. This is just how things are. The industry calls this SOP – standard operating procedure.

Don’t expect SOP to change any time soon. There is little pressure within government or industry to be more transparent. In fact, the opposite is arguably true.

Until something changes, concerned insiders like Annesley will be outliers, and that doesn’t serve the interests of the people of Alberta, who are the ultimate owners of the province’s hydrocarbon riches according to the Canadian constitution.

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