The spill that keeps on spilling

Oil has been spilling near Cold Lake, AB for nine months and nobody knows why

BY SARAH BERMAN, VICE.COM

Originally published January 17, 2014.

It’s been eight months since the world first heard about a bitumen-oozing fiasco on a oil field owned by the Canadian Natural (CNRL) corporation near Cold Lake, Alberta. Four mysterious leaks have slowly spewed 1.878 million litres of heavy crude mixed with water, spurring several government investigations and orders—one of which called for two-thirds of a lake to be drained over the winter months.

According to the province’s energy regulator, all four spills are still oozing with no calculable end in sight. “The incident isn’t actually over,” says Darin Barter, senior PR advisor for the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), noting the cold weather has slowed the flow to “almost nothing.” “We don’t expect that’s going to last once the weather heats up,” he says.

All this is going down on an active air weapons range—which, no matter which way you slice it, is not a great look. The same Cold Lake oil field reported another incident just last week, spilling 27,000 bonus litres into an underground reservoir. Barter says that incident is unrelated, fixed and affected no wildlife or water bodies.

The spills have raised concern about the super-hot high-pressure injection methods CNRL and other energy companies use to get bitumen out of the ground. A coalition of 23 health, environment, and First Nations groups have called on the AER to conduct a public inquiry into the safety of so-called “in-situ” operations—a process similar to fracking.

Environment Canada, Alberta’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) and the AER have not, so far, taken up this broader cause. “I can only speak for the AER, but there are currently no plans for an inquiry into the matter,” Barter says. “Our investigation looks into the geological aspect,” he adds, “everything from pressures to caprock integrity.”

As The Tyee explained last October, caprock integrity isn’t often discussed in the media but it’s a crucial issue for the energy industry. “Approximately 80 per cent of Alberta’s bitumen deposits lie deeper than 75 metres and cannot be mined. As a consequence, these deep deposits, all capped by rock, are currently being heated to as high as 300 degrees Celsius with highly pressurized steam.” This caprock acts as a protective seal, and operating with enough pressure as to not break the caprock is a very precarious process that has gone wrong in the past. There’s no indication, however, that such a mistake was made in Cold Lake.

“Our focus is on whether environmental laws were broken,” ESRD spokesperson Jessica Potter tells me. The ESRD also issued a second order, to test deep groundwater wells and find root causes for the spill. The drilling for those tests is underway.

CNRL has complied with the orders and has made greater efforts to reach out to the public about remediation efforts, earmarking $40 million for clean up. The affected area has been reduced and pressure underground appears to have decreased.

Why it happened and how it’s dragged on so long remains undetermined—though CNRL is advancing a “confident” hypothesis that bad cement jobs in retired wells are to blame. “Canadian Natural’s causation review will be extensive,” CNRL spokesperson Zoe Addington assured me via email. “All the evidence and data collected to date suggests the fluids can only make it through the shales at the base of the Colorado Group by a failed or partially-failed wellbore.”

Translation: there are these super-hard rock layers with names like “Viking” and “Colorado” around 180-360 metres deep in the ground. So far none of CNRL’s evidence show those rock layers have been penetrated by anything but the company’s old well structures. “A failed wellbore can be in the form of a poor or faulty cement job on abandoned legacy stratigraphic wells.”

Photo of the fissures via Dr. Timoney and Lee.

Aside from being written in robot, this is not a complete answer—nor is it endorsed by the AER. “We can’t confirm what they’re saying,” says Barter. It doesn’t begin to explain why the bitumen arrives at the surface in long, oily gashes in the surrounding soil and wetlands.

“Until independent scientists can examine the geologic findings, I would not place much stock in the opinion of CNRL,” says Dr. Kevin Timoney, a scientist who released his own research on the spill back in September. Dr. Timoney says he does not know of any independent scientists that have been granted access to the site, which includes experts hired by local First Nations to collect evidence for constitutional challenges.

Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation is still waiting for access. She says her right to hunt, trap, fish, and forage on the land has been violated by the spill and the cumulative affects of industry. “In order for those rights to be abided by, you obviously need a healthy ecosystem—being damaged and affected, that’s a direct violation of our treaty rights, which are enshrined in the Canadian constitution.”

The Beaver Lake Cree case is one of several legal battles between provincial and federal governments and First Nations, most recently sparking controversy as Neil Young weighed in, asking Canadians to honour the treaties of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, a people and territory located further north amid Alberta’s oil deposits.

“They [the government] don’t get to pick and choose which parts of the constitution they like and which they don’t,” Lameman says, adding the Beaver Lake Cree have documented 20,000 treaty violations based on leases and permits granted without First Nations consultation. Lameman’s nation recently succeeded in raising over $30,000 to begin researching cumulative impacts of developments like the CNRL spill site near Cold Lake.

The spill officially enters its ninth month next week.

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