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Field Notes

Field Notes from Dr. Emily Eaton.

The Husky Oil Spill: Just one of 18,000

Emily Eaton

Photo: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

Photo: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

The 250,000 litres of heavy oil and diluent that Husky Oil spilled into the North Saskatchewan River on July 21, 2016 is rightly receiving significant public attention. After all, it is threatening the drinking water of tens of thousands of people living downstream and shutting down the intake of water treatment plants in affected communities, forcing residents to buy bottled drinking water and fill their bathtubs as short-term reservoirs.

Relatively speaking, this is a fairly small spill originating from a minor pipeline that transports oil directly from Husky’s sites of extraction to its plant in Lloydminster where it is upgraded and loaded into larger regional and intercontinental pipelines.

Just for comparison sake, the Enbridge pipeline that spilled into the Kalamazoo in 2010 released over 4,000 m3, while this one is estimated at 200-250 m3. It is eye-opening that a spill of this size, from one of hundreds of pipelines meant to deliver oil from sites of extraction to sites of processing in the province, could jeopardize the drinking water of thousands.

If exactly this oil spill had happened elsewhere on land, or into a less significant source of drinking water, it would go unnoticed in the province. Indeed, thousands of spills of oil, salinated ‘produced water’, natural gas, and other substances used and extracted by the oil industry are spilled across the Saskatchewan landscape every year. A handy spreadsheet on the Ministry of Economy’s website indicates that there have been over 18,000 spills in Saskatchewan since 1990.  A 10 year snapshot reveals over 8,360 spills since 2006, of which Husky is responsible for 1,463 (or 17.5%). 

Spills are part of the everyday operations of the oil industry. In fact, only large pipelines carrying oil across provincial boundaries are regulated by the National Energy Board. The thousands of smaller lines that carry produced oil over small distances from a well to a battery or from sites of extraction to refining are only subject to Saskatchewan's regulations. Before being built they need no public input or environmental assessment, no consent from those who own or use the land, and they are subject to almost no inspection or monitoring. When a spill does happen, the company simply reports the amount to the ministry and goes merrily on its way.

Routine spills coming from small flow lines and pipelines wreak havoc in Saskatchewan’s rural oil producing communities. They are often unspectacular and difficult to see, but spilt salt water and oil cause long-term damage to crops, humans, and animals. Spills impede vegetative growth, degrade native prairie by allowing noxious weeds to invade, and threaten the health of humans and animals when dugouts or other surface water is polluted. I have met and talked with farmers across the province that, decades later, are still fighting with oil companies over cleanup and remediation of spills on their lands. The provincial regulators are so under-staffed that they cannot properly enforce the regulations that do exist. These regulators are certainly not in the position to make a decision about whether a company has been negligent since they rely on companies self-reporting all aspects of their operations.

As Saskatchewan moves to ‘regulation by declaration’ in the oil industry, this reality will only get worse. Our public regulators and representatives really have no idea about what is happening in the oil patch and they are relying increasingly on companies to self-declare that they understand the regulations and are properly reporting their activities (spills included). Can we really afford to let spills be regular industry practice? Whose water supply will be hit next?

Investigating the Saskatchewan Oil Economy

Emily Eaton

We all know that Saskatchewan’s oil economy has provided employment to energy workers and boosted provincial revenues through land sales and royalties.

But Saskatchewan people have had little access to information about the social and environmental impacts of oil. is an independent information hub about the impacts of oil in our province. 

This site presents the other side of Saskatchewan’s oil story by providing information about the oil industry and its extraction techniques, and by profiling real people living with and sustaining the oil economy.

Riding the Boom-Bust cycle

When oil prices plunged in the fall of 2014, the province was painfully reminded that its newfound status as a “have” province was tied to the ups and downs of global commodity prices for natural resources.

Suddenly, there was speculation about the end of Saskaboom: government started to talk about sacrifices, cuts to public services, and privatization efforts; housing prices stopped climbing; vacancy rates began to rise; and resource workers got very nervous.

A missing piece

When I moved back to Saskatchewan after completing my Ph.D. in 2009, the province was in the midst of an extractive industry boom.

Although Saskatchewan was (and is) the second largest oil producer in the country, I was surprised to find very little attention given in the media or among academics to the significance and impacts of the province’s oil economy. If there was ever a story about oil in Canada, Alberta’s tar sands were at the centre. As a province, we weren’t having much of a conversation about our newfound wealth and what it all meant.

Research as intervention

In 2011, I decided to turn my attention to investigating Saskatchewan’s oil economy, with the help of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

In my preliminary research I found that government and industry explained Saskatchewan’s oil boom as the product of two factors:

1) the high world price of oil (at the time), and
2) technological innovations that allowed harder-to-reach oil to be accessed – like pairing horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing.

But this doesn’t explain the whole picture, does it? There is a lack of information about the roles played by oil workers, contractors, farmers and ranchers, temporary foreign workers, and social service providers in realizing Saskaboom.

I set out to investigate both the positive and negative impacts of the booming oil economy for everyone involved. It was time to hit the road!

In the summer of 2014, I set out with photographer Valerie Zink in a camper and half-ton truck to visit the major oil-producing communities in Saskatchewan, including the Lloydminster, Kindersley, Shaunavon and Estevan regions.

Dr. Emily Eaton and photographer Valerie Zink getting ready to fly over Lloydminster area to observe oil well density.

Terry Crush showing Emily a map of the oil infrastructure on his farm near Lloydminster

I spoke with municipal politicians, social service providers, faith leaders, oil workers, and farmers and ranchers. This website will feature portraits of some of these people.

Where do we go from here? is meant to round out the conversation about oil in this province.

If you are interested in knowing more, like on Facebook and explore the under-appreciated and under-investigated impacts of oil in the province. 

Have you been impacted personally by oil?

If you are someone living in the oilpatch or affected by oil’s impacts, I’d very much like to hear your story. Please be in touch at

Your story and identity will be treated confidentially.