1.2 Million Litres and Counting: Feds Launch Investigation into CNRL’s Ongoing Oil Spill

cold lake bitumen tar sand oil spill primrose project CNRL

It has been three months since the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) first reported on the subsurface spills occurring at Canada Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) operations on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, 300 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. Yesterday Environment Canada told Postmedia’s Mike De Souza that the federal department “is currently assessing the situation with respect to federal environmental laws within its jurisdiction, and has opened an investigation.”

The underground leaks, discovered on four separate well pads, have been releasing a mixture of bitumen emulsion – a mixture of oil and water – uncontrollably since at least May, although AER reports suggest the spill has been ongoing for much longer. The regulator forced CNRL to suspend its high pressure cyclic steam stimulation (HPCSS) operations in one project area “earlier this year,” according to an AER incident report released in July.

HPCSS, also known as Huff and Puff technology, forces steam underground at extremely high pressures over prolonged periods of time. The high pressure steam softens underlying bitumen, a dense heavy crude and sand mixture found beneath large regions of the boreal forest, causing the viscous oil to separate from the sand. The pressure forms cracks in the bedrock, allowing the bitumen emulsion to flow through the wellbore and up to the surface.

The high pressures used in the process may be a factor in the underground leaks.

In a recent statement CNRL stated the company “believes the cause of the bitumen emulsion seepage is mechanical failures of wellbores in the vicinity of the controlled areas. We are in the process of identifying and investigating these wellbores.”

On Friday, AER spokesperson Bob Curran told DeSmog Canada, “we haven’t determined the cause of the spill at this time.”

According to AER figures released yesterday, 1275.7 cubic metres of bitumen emulsion have been recovered on all four spill sites. That equals just over 8023 barrels of oil or more than 1.2 million litres of oil. For comparison, the most expensive onshore oil spill in US history, when Enbridge’s Line 6B ruptured near the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, Michigan, released 3 million litres.

The AER announced a “subsurface investigation” was ongoing on August 20, 2013, although it is unrelated to any investigation currently being carried out by Environment Canada.

When we say a subsurface investigation what that means is our investigation is focused on what subsurface problems have caused this spill to arise. There’s no category of subsurface investigations - it’s a generic terms that’s applied,” he said.

Both the AER and Alberta’s Energy and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) are investigating the spill, says Curran.

[AER] is looking at the source of the problem and the company’s actions as they pertain to the issue. ESRD is looking more at impacts,” he said. “Environment Canada hasn’t contacted us about their investigation.”

Curran said he is unable at this time to comment on the scope of Environment Canada’s investigation or whether it will overlap with current efforts of AER or ESRD.

Certainly our investigation is complimentary to ESRD’s on the provincial side,” he said.

Issues Manager Nikki Booth says ESRD is “working cooperatively” with Environment Canada although “the investigations will be complete separate because different pieces of legislation or contraventions are being investigated.”

AER, ESRD and Environment Canada each have their own independent investigation, she said. “We work with AER on theirs and they on ours – so it’s all very cooperative.”

We have the EPEA (Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act) and the Water Act,” said Booth, which are the relevant pieces of legislation for the ESRD investigation. 

ESRD is not releasing much information at this time because the investigation is ongoing, says Booth. “We want it to be a fair and thorough process. Once the investigation is wrapped up there will be more information we can provide.”

According to an updated incident report released yesterday, August 29, “2 beavers, 40 birds, 101 amphibians, and 33 small mammals [are] deceased” as a result of the ongoing spill.

Image Credit: Emma Pullman