Bubbling bitumen a black eye for oil industry

When it comes to describing the accident at the Canadian Natural Resources’ oilsands operation near Cold Lake, “leak” doesn’t do it justice. Neither does “spill.”

A “leak” can be plugged. A “spill” implies a one-time event.

What’s happening at CNRL’s project is neither. For the last three months, 7,300 barrels of bitumen have uncontrollably bubbled to the surface from deep underground and seeped into muskeg and water on four sites at the company’s operations, creating an ecological mess, killing wildlife and damaging the reputation of CNRL in particular and the oilsands industry in general.

The company has cut down trees, hauled away tons of oily muskeg and put containment booms on a contaminated lake. But the bitumen keeps coming, seeping out of the ground through long, narrow fissures. Not only has CNRL been unable to stop it, the company doesn’t know for sure why it keeps coming.

The Pembina Institute based in Calgary disturbingly describes the leak as an “uncontrolled blowout in an oil reservoir deep underground.”

On the surface, though, it is not a “geyser” as some environmental groups have dramatically described the flow. It’d be more accurate to say the ground is suppurating bitumen, or maybe festering. Or, if you insist on being dramatic, weeping.

But those descriptors don’t do justice to the size of the surface contamination. Enough bitumen has oozed out of the ground to half fill an Olympic swimming pool. Put another way, in volume, it’s about one-third the size of the Enbridge accident that dumped more than 20,000 barrels of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, causing the largest inland pipeline spill in United States history and creating an $800-million cleanup job.

No matter the size or how you describe it, an oil spill is not a pretty sight, not that it’s been easy to take a peek at the CNRL accident. The affected area is not only remote, it is on the Cold Lake Air Weapons range, which means it is out of bounds to civilians. Its inaccessibility has made the story all the more intriguing to journalists, not only in Canada but around the world.

On Thursday, company and military officials took a gaggle of local, national and international reporters to the site to see for themselves. My colleague, Sheila Pratt, was among them and reported that 200 workers are urgently trying to clean up the mess and prevent migrating birds from landing on a small lake in the contaminated area: “In an effort to scare off birds, noise cannons are booming, flags flutter on the site, decoys of predators dot the lake and bizarre mannequins peek out of trees,” wrote Pratt.

The problem seems to be related to the company’s in situ process for recovering bitumen. In what’s called “high-pressure cyclic steam stimulation,” CNRL injects steam into deep wells to melt the bitumen. After weeks of injection, the process is reversed and bitumen pumped to the surface. CNRL officials think the leak was caused by an old well bore that couldn’t withstand the massive underground pressure and they say the problem should improve as the underground pressure decreases.

However, the province’s governmental watchdog, the Alberta Energy Regulator, says it’s too early to reach any conclusions about the cause, and the regulator has ordered the company to stop steaming in the affected area. There remains the possibility the problem was the result of a crack in the overlying cap rock created by the high-pressure steaming process. That would be a much larger problem for CNRL. It’s one thing for the company to plug up an old cracked well bore, but quite another to deal with cracks in a geological formation.

It would also be a much larger problem for the oilsands industry that is moving away from open pit mining to in situ methods designed to be less environmentally disruptive. The CNRL incident is raising troubling questions and providing ammunition for environmental groups to once again attack the industry.

Also troubling is the fact this is the second CNRL leak in the same area. In 2009, 5,600 barrels seeped into the environment. A cause was never conclusively reached, but the provincial regulator said “geological weakness, in combination with stress induced by high pressure steam injection” may have contributed to the incident.

Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema says regulators need to review the in situ methods: “How do we identify what formations are safe to take high-pressure steam?”

Given that the industry plans to recover 80 per cent of the oilsands through the in situ process, CNRL and regulators must come up with some answers. The first and most obvious is what happened at the operations near Cold Lake?

It doesn’t matter if you call it a leak or a spill or an underground blowout — we need to know what caused it and what it means to the integrity of the oilsands industry.

Graham Thomson is a columnist with the Edmonton Journal.
© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

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