CNRL denied request to restart work at months-long leak site

Environmental activists are expressing relief after Canadian Natural Resources Ltd’s (CNRL) application to resume full bitumen extraction activities near Bonnyville in east-central Alberta was rejected by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). Shortly afterwards the company withdrew its application indicating it may not try for approval again. The Calgary-based oil company currently has 24 applications pending before the AER. Its request to return to injecting steam down wells at its Primrose development lease raised the ire of environmentalists as the company has struggled since May 2013 to halt the flow of four oil leaks on that same site.

In quarterly reports to investors in 2013 and 2014 CNRL stated some of its steam-assisted extraction activities at Primrose were suspended due to the leaks and that the site would only be up and running at full capacity after the AER completed its review of what caused the spills.

That review is ongoing yet CNRL applied to start using high-pressure cyclic steam stimulation (HPCSS) this month to extract bitumen in restricted zones near the leak areas. CNRL’s application said steam would be injected at relatively low pressure and therefore would be unlikely to exacerbate the unexplained leaks. The AER disagreed.

The regulatory body rejected the application on March 7. AER spokesman Bob Curran says it would be “inappropriate” to allow CNRL to go ahead with those plans while the investigation into the leak remains open.

Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada has monitored the Primrose situation closely since last May.

“We’re glad that the AER listened to the growing public calls and turned down CNRL’s application to re-steam its already spill-prone area” Hudema says.

“A much broader safety review of in-situ technology is also needed. What these ongoing uncontrollable nine-month-plus long spills tell us is that there are major safety gaps in information about our understanding of underground tarsands extraction technology that need to be addressed before the government approves any more tarsands in-situ projects” he says.

Erin Flanagan of the Pembina Institute stated in a press release that the CNRL blowouts of 2009 and 2013 have raised unanswered questions about the viability of the HPCSS method of extracting bitumen in Alberta. “CNRL has made claims that steaming can be resumed safely but has not backed up those claims by making public the findings of any recent investigations” she said.

Greenpeace Pembina Treeline Ecological Research and Global Forest Watch Canada have long called on the Alberta government to suspend all extraction activity at Primrose though AER spokespeople maintain that as long as the company co-operates in the investigation it can continue to operate on the site.

Due to the four leaks discovered in 2013 and a fifth that briefly occurred in January 2014 CNRL reports its cleanup crew has recovered some 11000 barrels of bitumen and wastewater removed 15000 tonnes of contaminated soil collected over 200 dead animals and drained a nearby lake in a failed attempt to find the cause of the leaks.

Also on March 7 the provincial government laid 11 charges under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act against CNRL in an unrelated case for its accidental release of hydrogen sulphide gas from its Horizon Upgrader at Fort McKay. The August 2012 gas leak was discovered in part when Fort McKay residents complained about the air quality near the upgrader.

In that incident CNRL is charged with the release of a substance causing a significant adverse effect; release of an unapproved substance; failure to report approval contraventions; failing to properly report the contravention and release to the director and the Fort McKay First Nation; and providing misleading information to the director and the Fort McKay First Nation. CNRL faces possible fines of up to $500000 for each charge.