The Alberta government has ordered Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) to drain a lake as part of its cleanup of one of four continuing bitumen leaks on the Cold Lake Weapons Range in northeastern Alberta, ongoing since May.
The order requires temporary removal of water from an unnamed bitumen-affected waterbody before the water freezes so that permanent containment measures can be put in place over the winter.
The bitumen is currently leaking below the lake and has stayed sunk at the bottom.
“Doing the work when the ground is frozen will minimize the long-term environmental impact to the waterbody,” the province stated in a news release last Tuesday.
CNRL is required to temporarily dewater approximately two-thirds of the 53-hectare body of water prior to freeze-up.
A large portion of the removed water is to be stored in the remaining one-third of the lake so that water levels may be restored in spring 2014.
The order also demands “permanent containment, cleanup, remediation and restoration” of the lake by next spring, at which point it will be refilled with stored water.
CNRL first reported bitumen coming to the surface beneath the waterbody at its Primrose South facility on June 24. The company initiated temporary containment measures as part of its response efforts.
Three other leaks were located previously at surface sites approximately 10 km away in CNRL’s Primrose East oil and gas developments, but are not subject to the environmental protection order.
Independent investigation raises concerns
An independent investigation into the ongoing bitumen leaks released on Sept. 17, co-written by Global Forest Watch and Treeline Ecological Research, criticizes the Alberta Energy Regulator for bungling its communications with CNRL and failing to protect the public interest.
Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee, the two lead investigators, write that the CNRL leaks are significant in that they “represent a new type of industrial incident that differs fundamentally from a typical ‘spill.’”
Those differences are made apparent by the fact that the cause of the leaks remains uncertain; the leaks are located deep underground and are not confined to a pipeline and, thus, are difficult to stop; the releases are three-dimensional as opposed to surface spills; the leaking bitumen is coming up through a network of both horizontal and vertical fissures; the risks to the integrity of the bitumen reservoir and groundwater have been unquantified; and the leaks were “apparently unforeseen” by industry and the regulator.
A cause behind a similar leak in 2009 from CNRL’s Pad 74 facility has still not been determined by the regulator, the report notes, meaning safeguards that would have lowered the risk of future releases were not instituted, despite an “excessive” four-year time period between the first leak and the ongoing incidents.
“In light of the unquantified risks to the bitumen reservoir, groundwater and the adjacent ecosystems, the decision by the Alberta regulator to allow High Pressure Cyclic Steam Stimulation (HPCSS) to continue was unjustified by the available evidence,” the report states.
The proximity of the 2009 leak to the four existing ones from 2013 suggest the five may be causally related and may share a common source area at well Pad 74, the paper also notes.
“Whether vertical migration (of bitumen) included failed wellbores is uncertain, but the near simultaneity of the four releases argues against wellbore failure as the sole explanation.”
Timoney said the Alberta regulator’s decision to allow CNRL to continue operations fell short of its mandate to protect the public interest.
“The four bitumen releases to surface attributed to HPCSS that have occurred during the first six months of 2013 in the CNRL Primrose area present a clear warning,” he said. “Due diligence dictates that all HPCSS operations should be suspended until major unknowns are addressed. If not, continued use of HPCSS may result in large and unpredictable costs, and those costs will not be borne by the energy companies but by future generations.”
The last media release by CNRL, provided on July 31, states the Primrose leaks have been “secured” and that cleanup, recovery and reclamation activities were “well underway.”
An online counter set up by Mike Hudema, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace in Edmonton, estimates that over 1.5 million litres of bitumen and counting have leaked into the environment from the four CNRL sites as approximately 3,000 litres pours out each day.