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Special treatment for big oil

Albertans who ‘break the rules’ shown the door: except for you know who

In the last few months, the Alberta Government has been working very hard to present itself as being tough with those people and organizations that do not toe the government line, and has not hesitated to slap down threats and fines for anyone who doesn’t
comply.

We saw this when prison guards in Edmonton walked out on a wildcat strike and the government moved quickly to have the strike declared illegal by the Labour Relations Board and impose outrageous escalating fines on the union for every day the striking workers did not return to work. After the strike ended, the government did not hesitate to say they would continue to pursue individual workers and the unions to recover the full cost of the wildcat strike.

Similarly, once it started to become clear that there would not be unanimous support among the province’s teachers and school boards for the salary agreement that the government wanted approved, the government chose to bare its teeth and unilaterally impose the agreement across the province rather than return to the bargaining table.

Likewise, this past week, we saw what happened to the members of the Alberta Health Services Board when they voted to honour their negotiated contracts with AHS executives rather than fall into line with the minister’s order not to pay out anything resembling a performance bonus—they were all very expeditiously fired and publicly dressed down.

The message is very clear: this is a government that will act swiftly and publicly to ensure that its directives, orders and rules are enforced—unless, of course, you happen to be an oil company.

In 2009, as a result of the negative publicity Alberta’s bitumen tailing ponds were receiving around the world following the death of 1600 ducks on one of the ponds, the Environmental Resources Conservation Board introduced and implemented Directive 074. The directive was meant to slow the proliferation of toxic tailings from the province’s bitumen operations by setting clear targets and timelines for the province’s bitumen companies to reduce the amount of fine particles going into liquid tailings, thereby reducing their toxicity.

At the time the directive was implemented, the ERCB boasted, “This directive came about because we needed to change the way that tailings regulation is done in Alberta. We needed something that had some teeth in it, where we were able to get targets set that would be enforceable if those targets weren’t met.” The same ERCB spokesperson made it clear that once the directive was implemented, Albertans “will know that if those targets aren’t met, companies will be facing enforcement action.”

So, there are enforceable regulations and timelines in place, and we have a government that says it is determined to see those regulations and timelines respected and enforced. Certainly this tough-on-dissension government would not hesitate to quickly and loudly use the many sanctions at its disposal to punish those companies who failed to comply, would they?

Last week the ERCB released its latest report on compliance by the province’s bitumen companies with the targets and timelines set out in Directive 074. Not only has every company failed to meet the established reduction targets, but tailings in the province have actually continued to grow since the directive was implemented.

Faced with this failure to comply, the ERCB could now proceed to take any of a number of actions to enforce the directive, including everything from increasing audits and site inspections to imposing fees and fines to shutting down or completely taking over operations. Instead, after releasing the report, the ERCB said that it would be doing absolutely nothing, because it is confident that the oil companies are doing the best they can.

One would assume that, surely, the same government that didn’t hesitate to punish prison guards and their unions, impose an agreement on teachers and fire the entire board of AHS would move quickly in response to the failure of the oil companies to meet the directive and the refusal of the ERCB to enforce the directive. Well, that assumption would be wrong. This is one case where the government did absolutely nothing.

The government’s response to this situation is just one more example of how there is one set of rules for most of us and a completely different set of rules for the province’s oil and gas industry. It is now also clearer than ever that this government’s ability to govern in the best interests of Albertans has been completely overtaken by its desire to keep the oil industry happy. We should all be outraged and demand the same type of action against the oil industry that we saw against prison guards, teachers and the AHS board. V

Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.

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