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Alberta pipeline report another case of the ol’ bait and switch

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CALGARY — When it comes to pipeline safety, there’s no place like Alberta.

Last week Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes released a comprehensive review of pipeline safety. The review, authored by Group 10 Engineering, was ordered by the government after a number of pipeline incidents in the province, including a spill of 3,000 barrels of crude into the Red Deer River.

The somewhat misnamed Alberta Pipeline Safety Review didn’t actually review pipeline safety in Alberta. It didn’t even review the strength of the pipeline regulations in the province, a point missed by most critics. Rather, it compared pipeline regulations in Alberta against those of other jurisdictions. It ignored whether any of the regulations were effective. This is classic lying with statistics — measure one thing, draw conclusions about another.

More colloquially, it’s known as the old bait and switch. Draw attention to something positive and hope no one notices it has nothing to do with what you’re selling. I can remember ads promoting a cigarette brand as healthy because they were preferred by doctors - 2 to 1!

The bait and switch is popular with advertisers and public relations departments because it’s so effective. For example, an Alberta Health Services (AHS) executive charges repairs to his Mercedes on his expense account. Promise to investigate but instead examine whether this is in accordance with existing policy. Bait and switch.

Executives at Enmax, the City of Calgary power utility, take trips to Monaco to watch the F1 races at suppliers’ expense. Promise to investigate, but examine whether it’s consistent with the corporate ethics code instead. Who cares?

Wait times for healthcare are linked to people dying. In response, publish comparisons of wait time performance with wait time targets. Hardly the same thing. The AHS emergency wait time target is admitting 75 per cent of patients within eight hours. The patient’s wait time target is ‘before dying’.

People living in Fort Chipewyan express concerns about upstream oil sands production causing increased cancer risk. Promise a comprehensive review. Conduct a study measuring the correlation between cancer and living in Fort Chipewyan instead. Hope no one remembers that correlation isn’t causation. No one did.

When the facts are against you, public relations has no better friend than the bait and switch. Usually it works. This time, not so much.

Criticism of the pipeline safety review has been intense, widespread, and on target. By ignoring actual failure or incident rates, as well as inspection and enforcement activities, no rational conclusions concerning pipeline safety in the province can be made. It’s like concluding Iran is a safe place to live (not true) because it has the toughest laws against violent crime (true. No country makes greater use of firing squad, hanging and stoning for crimes against the person, including murder, armed robbery, drug trafficking, and of course, homosexuality, than Iran).

No rational conclusions mean no rational recommendations. The report makes recommendations anyway. Why not? When going down the rabbit hole you might as well go all the way.

I’m no expert at political calculations but it strikes me this report has broader implications. Incidents in the United States, and numerous proposals for pipeline expansion, have put pipelines, especially those moving Alberta crude, under a North American microscope. Whether Albertan’s know how to move oil through pipe, safely and reliably, could well impact the prosperity of the province for some time to come.

Yet, as a result of this report, outside jurisdictions and decision makers may well now be asking themselves; "If Alberta has nothing to hide, if their pipeline companies are really any good, why did they try and pull the old bait and switch?" I think the safety record of pipelines in Canada is quite good. But what I think doesn’t matter. We don’t need more opinion. We need evidence-based decision-making, not decision-based evidence making.


Troy Media columnist Robert Gerst is a partner in charge of operational excellence, and research and statistical methods at Converge Consulting Group Inc.



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