Satellite imagery of the site (the spills are marked with yellow boxes).
For several months now, oil has been bubbling up out of the ground in four locations near Cold Lake, Alberta. Over 1.5 million litres of “bitumen emulsion” (a combo of heavy crude and water) has been found on a military base that’s also used by Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) for oil extraction. Officials have no way of capping the underground oozing, which has many scientists, environmentalists and First Nations worried.
The leak “represents a new type of industrial incident that differs fundamentally from a typical spill,” reads a new investigative report by Dr. Kevin Timoney of Treeline Ecological Research and Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch. In other words, the oil isn’t simply coming out of a pipeline. According to Timoney’s research, it could be coming out of deep cracks in underground rock formations, created by the company’s high-pressure steam injection.
CNRL doesn’t mine for bitumen at its Cold Lake operation. Instead the company uses a process similar to fracking, where it injects 300-degree steam at super-high pressures into the ground for several weeks. The hot steam liquefies the bitumen, while the pressure pushes out sand. When the pressure is released, bitumen flows up through the injection well.
On May 20, CNRL told regulators bitumen was coming up in at least one area it wasn’t supposed to. In July, a government scientist leaked photos of the growing spill to the media, forcing provincial regulators to go public with the mess. Since then, over 20 hectares of impacted water, muskeg and forest have been fenced off for cleanup. (To put the size into perspective, the Cold Lake spill is nearing one half the volume of the Enbridge spill that devastated Michigan’s Kalamazoo river back in 2010.)
“There are four bitumen-to-surface releases,” confirmed Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) spokesperson Bob Curran in an email. “All remain ongoing.” The oozing leaks will continue until the underground pressure subsides. How long that will take is anybody’s guess.
“What this spill has revealed is that there are a lot of questions about this type of technology,” says Mike Hudema, campaigner for Greenpeace in Edmonton. One of several “major unknowns” highlighted in Timoney and Lee’s report is that bitumen could be seeping sideways—as well as to the surface—affecting local groundwater.
The oil company put out a press release saying the leaks are coming from abandoned wells—not cracks in the rock formation. Alberta’s energy regulator says it’s too early to tell, as all four leaks are under provincial and federal investigation. Curran says the AER is currently reviewing Timoney and Lee’s report.
As a precaution, the AER asked CNRL to suspend operations in the affected areas. In response, CNRL says it will accelerate production elsewhere to meet targets. “With these steaming restrictions [the company] has begun the production cycle in some areas earlier than would normally have been the case,” reads the July 31 release.
This sends up all kinds of red flags for Timoney and Lee, who recommend that all high-pressure steam injection projects be suspended until “an in-depth, independent scientific investigation of the geological, hydrological and ecological risks” is completed.
First Nations have also criticized the company and the AER for not publishing information about two additional “process water” spills on their traditional hunting and trapping territory. “Both incidents were reported to the regulator, were minor—small volumes and contained on lease, and cleaned up in short order,” says Curran. “They are not connected to the bitumen releases.”
But with the AER publishing CNRL’s self-reported measurements, Crystal Lameman of the Bear Lake Cree Nation wants to see the site for herself. “It’s stated in our treaty: we can hunt, fish and forage. And if you are affecting my ability to hunt and fish, then you are infringing on my treaty rights,” she says. The Bear Lake Cree Nation is currently fighting a constitutional case that argues the cumulative affects of the tar sands violate constitutionally-protected rights to hunt, trap and fish.
Lameman was denied access to the site, while some local and international media have been allowed to visit and film. She says one of the spills is nearby a gravesite where her elders are buried. “I want to know that those graves are undisturbed,” she says.
Lameman says trust has broken down between regulators and First Nations. “They’re not telling us everything, they’re not being 110 percent transparent with us,” she says. “It’s like the AER lost their backbone somewhere and forgot to pick it up.”
One of the areas has leaked before in 2009. The cause was never fully determined, but the AER wrote "geological weakness in combination with stress induced by high pressure steam injection" may have contributed to the incident.
While industry experts and scientists try to answer all of the serious riddles surrounding this incident, this story is a very serious reminder of the risk we run through energy extraction in Canada. In the ghost of the Lac Megantic tragedy and numerous other oil spills throughout the country, this is an incredibly important issue to watch as more and more industry gets developed.
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