CNRL wells continue to leak bitumen in central Alberta

Bitumen is still leaking from Canadian Natural Resources Limited’s Primrose operations eight months after the problem was discovered and neither CNRL nor the Alberta Energy Regulator know the reason.

Between May 20 and June 24 of last year CNRL found four surface leaks on its in situ bitumen extraction site near Bonnyville in east-central Alberta. Though the oil company and AER say the cause is likely a mechanical failure at the well site no one knows for sure where the subsurface fissures are as they continue steadily leaking bitumen into the environment or what caused them. A fifth leak appeared on January 4 but CNRL claims it knows the reason for that leak and it has been contained.

“There’s significant challenges” says AER spokesperson Darin Barter. He explains the main issue is the leaks all originate underground and CNRL just can’t seem to find where.

“It’s a very unusual incident. It’s very uncommon to see this thing and we want to make sure that we have the right people looking at the data and the geology so that it doesn’t happen in the future” says Barter.

“There’s a lot of concerns” says Mike Hudema of Greenpeace. “We have four spills that have been spilling into Alberta’s environment for well over eight months one of which forced the partial draining of a lake and the company and the government are unable to stop them.”

Due to the leaks at Primrose CNRL admits it has recovered over 11000 barrels of “bitumen emulsion” — a combination of bitumen and wastewater. It has also been forced to truck over 15000 tonnes of contaminated soil and 515 cubic metres of oil-soaked vegetation from Primrose to a class 2 landfill. Additionally CNRL crews have collected over 200 dead animals. In September the regulator ordered CNRL to drain a lake in order to search for the possible origin of one of the four leaks.

It is the fourth largest bitumen leak in Alberta’s history. CNRL is responsible for two of the province’s other largest bitumen-related accidents.

Despite pressure from Greenpeace and other environmental advocacy groups Barter says the AER has no plans to force CNRL to shut down its Primrose operations or to suspend its lease because “there’s willingness on the part of the company to work with us.”

Some argue this isn’t the first time Primrose should have been shut down. The second largest accidental bitumen releases in Alberta occurred in 2009 on CNRL’s Pad 74 not far from the Primrose site. The cause was never determined. An independent investigation co-authored by Treeline Ecological Research and Global Forest Watch Canada surmises the 2013 leaks are a continuation of the 2009 leak.

“The Alberta regulator admitted to not knowing the cause of the Pad 74 incident; therefore safeguards were not instituted that might have acted to lower the risk of future bitumen releases” the report says.

The report also cautions the environmental impact of the in situ bitumen extraction method used at Primrose and in many other parts of the province are poorly understood and “require urgent study.”

“Expansion of in situ methods of bitumen exploitation across Alberta is outpacing the increase in knowledge of the potential below-ground and surface impacts of these methods” reads the report.

Hudema agrees saying the inability to stop the leaks is “the biggest concern because it really raises a lot of questions about this type of technology. Of course we know that more in situ projects are being approved by the Alberta government all the time despite these outlying questions.”

Hudema also agrees with the Treeline report’s assessment that the AER and CNRL have consistently failed to provide enough information to the public or explain how their actions are helping. He says information updates from CNRL have been vague and sporadic and access to the site is restricted. He points out that members of the nearby Beaver Lake Cree and Cold Lake First Nations were given tours of the leak site but were prohibited from bringing their own scientists to collect samples for independent testing.

As a result of these issues provincial auditor general Merwan Saher announced he will audit the government’s monitoring systems inspection and enforcement processes to ensure compliance with provincial pipeline regulations.

Hudema is also worried Albertans have failed to realize the scale of this incident because we see so many such accidents that there is now an “incident fatigue” in the mind of the media and public. Alberta has recorded 856 other bitumen leaks in which a measurable volume was collected.

“[It] should be very worrying in and of itself that we just have so many incidents that people are just ho-hum when incidents occur. That begs for change not for us to stop paying attention” he says.