A draft version of a new investigative report released this week by Global Forest Watch and Treeline Ecological Research argues the series of underground leaks currently releasing a mixture of tar sands bitumen and water into a surrounding wetland and forest on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range is related to a similar set of spills caused by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) in-situ operations in 2009.
The cause of the 2009 seepage was never determined and details of an investigation by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), then called the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), weren’t made public until last year, four years after the initial incident.
The new report, called “CNRL’s Persistent 2013 Bitumen Releases Near Cold Lake, Alberta: Facts, Unanswered Questions, and Implications,” takes aim at the AER for allowing certain in-situ, or underground, tar sands extraction technologies to continue without adequately addressing “major unknowns.” The independent investigation reveals the AER continually fails to protect the public interest in relation to these spills and that both industry and government demonstrate 'dysfunction' in their lack of transparency with the public.
CNRL, the company responsible for both the 2009 and current leaks, uses a process called High Pressure Cyclic Steam Stimulation (HPCSS) to fracture underlying bedrock in order to extract bitumen under pressure. HPCSS uses extremely high pressures and temperatures to create underground fractures allowing for the migration of bitumen. According to the ERCB’s investigation of the 2009 incident, these underground fractures were offered as a potential explanation for the uncontrolled release of bitumen above ground.
Despite multiple investigations, regulators and industry were unable to definitively identify the cause of the 2009 incident. The new report’s two authors, Peter Lee and Dr. Kevin Timoney, suggest this lack of certainty makes the company’s continued operation in the area, and use of HPCSS technology, inexplicable.
“In light of the unquantified risks to the bitumen reservoir, groundwater, and the adjacent ecosystems, the decision by the ERCB to allow HPCSS to continue during and after the  incident was unjustified by the available evidence,” the report states.
There are “spatial and temporal” reasons for believing the two incidents are related, claim the authors. An analysis of the time and locations of the seepage shows a consistent pattern of leaks, each migrating outwards from a central location where the 2009 incident occurred.
Although the causes of the incidents remain “unclear,” they write the seepage is “known to involve migration of bitumen emulsion through a network of vertical and horizontal fissures.”
A map of the affected areas in 2013 from the Global Forest Watch report.
“Due diligence dictates that all HPCSS operations should be suspended until major unknowns are addressed. If not, continued use of HPCSS may result in large and unpredictable costs, and those costs will not be borne by the energy companies but by future generations,” the report states.
Crystal Lameman, member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation whose traditional territory the seepage is within, says the ongoing situation calls into question the role and ultimate purpose of the AER. “What is their job, really?” Lameman asks. “What is their job and what is their agenda?”
The AER’s role depends upon their ability to regulate industry, she says. “They are supposed to be monitoring them and ensuring they are following through with the proper protocols, policies and procedures,” she said.
Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. Credit Emma Pullman.
Lameman says the AER’s inability to prevent multiple releases of bitumen into the environment is difficult to understand.
“Are they becoming deliberately ignorant to what industry is doing? Are they turning a blind eye? I guess I’m asking these questions because I can’t think of any other reason these thing like the CNRL spill can happen, or not be stopped, or reported at a quicker rate. It causes concern for me as someone who lives in a tar sands impacted community.”
For Lameman, the ongoing incident in Cold Lake is a part of a longer-running pattern.
“Since they’ve changed their name from the ERCB to the AER, I’ve seen nothing but a bad track record in the way they report, in the way they provide comment, the lack of expediting information to local First Nations people. What I’ve found is that we’re often the last ones to find out about these spills.”
The Global Forest Watch report also criticizes both the AER and CNRL for failing to communicate adequately with the media and the general public. The lack of information, says Lameman, leaves impacted communities guessing.
“What next? Are we going to find out that the spill from ’09 has been ongoing since ’09? And the AER, at that time the ERCB, didn’t tell us? Are we going to find out next that CNRL was pumping at higher pressures than they were supposed to?” she asked. The question of dangerously high injection pressures is a concern also raised by Timoney and Lee in the investigative report.
For Lameman, the events on CNRL’s site bring to light the inherent dangers of extracting bitumen deposits with in-situ technologies. “We’re putting our guards down when we believe the AER when it says that in-situ and SAGD are safer methods. How? How are these safe?” she asked. “The more spills that happen, [the AER] is proven otherwise.”