Nikiforuk: EUB: ‘Men Without Chests,’ ‘No Plan, No Policy, No Heart’

EUB: ‘Men Without Chests,’ ‘No Plan, No Policy, No Heart’ by Andrew Nikiforuk, September – October Issue Enviroline vol16, 2007
In one of his most famous essays, the Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis once described bureaucrats who banished all magnanimity and heart from their decisions as “men without chests.”

The Alberta Energy and Utility Board’s recent decision to grant Compton Petroleum another 2½-month extension on its plans to drill sour gas wells in the city’s southeast corner illustrates just how advanced this organic atrophy has become among the agency’s faceless directors.

By now almost every Calgarian knows the direction of this sad narrative.  A company, whose president wouldn’t live near a sour gas well, gleefully declares its intent to put nearly 250,000 citizens as well as a future hospital, in harm’s way so it can enrich itself. All because the oil and gas regulator has no plan, no policy and no heart.

I can’t name a world-class city that would allow active production of a highly hazardous gas and well-known chemical warfare agent in its backyard. Or that would entrust the safety of its citizens to an agency so chronically understaffed that it openly expects ordinary Albertans to do its own police work. Or that would relinquish its sovereignty to a board so morally captive to provincial cash flows that it even rubber stamps wells for companies in steady “noncompliance” mode without so much as demanding a $100,000 reclamation bond.

It gets worse. By the board’s own reluctant calculations and that of rural economist Peter Boxall, the health risks of sour gas devalue properties anywhere between five and 10 per cent. Any rural house in an emergency response zone, for example, loses $6,000 in value. So Compton’s project will sour property values in the city by at least $15 million. Men without chests, however, don’t bat an eyelash when it comes to expropriating property rights or the security of ordinary citizens.

After giving Compton two months to produce a coherent emergency response plan, the EUB has now rewarded the company’s insouciance by giving it another delay so that Compton can, in all likelihood, work harder at convincing taxpayers and other agencies to help foot the bill. Fortunately the Calgary Health Region (CHR) has challenged this insanity with a damning legal appeal of the board’s chestless actions. The CHR’s motion of appeal says everything the mayor should have said. It accuses the board of not considering the potential social and economic costs of the project; and it accuses the EUB of failing to establish the costs of evacuating, sheltering and providing medical care to persons affected by an accidental release of sour gas.

The CHR repeatedly accuses the board of erring, ignoring or misinterpreting so much evidence that “the board could not properly carry out its mandate to determine the public interest and weigh the social and economic effects of the proposed project.” These accusations have been echoed across the province. In Drayton Valley, where the board has abused rural Albertans by putting some households in as many as 52 emergency response zones (and thereby eliminated all value), people are getting fed up. Citizens there have actually brought industry’s high-density sour gas drilling to a standstill by objecting to every sour gas well. “The companies came in and said, ‘We will do what we want,’” says 56-year-old local Louis Mastre, and “we are fighting back.”

The residents of Drayton Valley, of course, support a vigorous oil and gas industry, but one run and regulated by men with chests. They want what southeast Calgarians want: a commitment to public health and safety first. They want priority land use zoning that keeps sour gas wells and high-density drilling away from schools, hospitals and grandmothers like Mastre. They want full cost accounting and industry to pay for property devaluation as well as full health-risk insurance for the residents of sour gas zones. And they want the regulator to responsibly act on industry’s appalling $9-billion deficit in unreclaimed wells and facilities.

Calgarians will know when sour gas developments in cities and towns are safe when their leaders practise what they preach. So when Premier Ralph Klein and Alberta Energy minister Greg Melchin make the ultimate sacrifice, and devalue their homes and that of their neighbours, by sticking sour gas wells in their backyards and all without improper health and economic assessments, and then submit to monitoring by an understaffed agency directed by men without chests and no cleanup fund, then we’ll know that sour gas is good for us.

Until that distant time, Compton’s rude proposal will remain a bad business supported by men without chests. “Do as you would be done by” remains a mighty measure of men, said Lewis. Even in an oil and gas town.

Andrew Nikiforuk is a proud Calgarian, freelance journalist and author who won the Governor General’s Award in 2002 for Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to: EUB: World-Class Regulator, ‘Effective and Comprehensive’ ]

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