The oil leak at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd’s (CNRL) oil sands project in Cold Lake, Alberta continues two years later and with no end in sight.
An Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) spokesperson confirmed that the 2013 leak is “ongoing.” CNRL currently describes the seepage as too small to measure at this point.
The AER’s Cara Tobin said, “They have not stopped releasing bitumen to surface.”
Even while oil continues to bubble up from the ground, no date has been given as to when the AER will tie up its investigation into the cause of the leaks and whether it will issue any recommendations.
To date, 1,177.14 cubic metres of oil has spread over 20.7 hectares on four sites, according to the AER, a number which has been disputed in a 2014 study from Treeline Ecological Research and Global Forest Watch Canada.
The latter pegged the leaked amounts at 1,193.6 cubic metres or 12,185 barrels of oil.
Wildlife impacted from the spill totals two beavers, 51 birds, 106 amphibians and 62 small mammals.
Tobin maintains that the site is “for the most part” cleaned up. But she said that bitumen is continuing to come to the surface in “very small quantities” every day through cracks in the ground.
Located roughly 350 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, the oil sands project is situated primarily within the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range and encompasses 73,728 hectares.
A process known as cyclic steam stimulation – sometimes called “huff and puff” – is used to extract the oil at CNRL’s Primrose/Wolf Lake Oil Sands Project in Cold Lake.
The process involves injecting steam to a depth of 500 metres through a wellbore for a period of time and then reversing the flow to produce the bitumen emulsion from the same well.
In their 2014 study on the Cold Lake oil spills, Kevin Timoney of Treeline and Peter Lee, the former director of Global Forest Watch Canada, noted: “That in addition to reducing the viscosity of the bitumen, the method results in deformation, fracturing of bedrock and vertical heave.”
Certainly, the Cold Lake problems would appear to bear that out. Tobin said the same steam that’s pumped in to increase pressure underground, loosen up the bitumen and make it flow more smoothly remains underground for “a long time. The only way to release that pressure is for it to naturally dissipate and that takes time, so the fact that it’s still bringing bitumen to the surface is expected.”
In its most recent update in April 2015 on the leaks, CNRL said it has contained the surface leaks and fully cleaned up all the flow to surface sites. The company noted that the fissures are covered with containment structures and a bitumen collection system is in place.
The AER has good reason to be methodical about issuing a report. For in situ oil sands mining, cyclical steam simulation is the most common and economical way to recover oil that’s too deep for open pit mining.
CNRL estimates 80 per cent of oil sands can be recovered using in situ methods.
Any attempts to regulate the process would certainly spark an outcry from the oil producers.
But Timoney and Lee noted in their report “High pressure cyclic steam stimulation methods may be leading to degradative changes in the quality of the groundwater and the integrity and containment of bitumen reservoirs and may be placing adjacent ecosystems at risk bitumen releases that are difficult to control.”