Alberta regulator allows company to resume oilsands production near site of ongoing leaks

Alberta regulator allows company to resume oilsands production near site of ongoing leaks
CNRL works to contain bitumen leaking into a lake at its Primrose operations near Cold Lake. The leaks, which began last May, are ongoing.Photo: CNRL.

Alberta’s energy regulator is allowing Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) to resume oilsands extraction at some of its operations near Cold Lake where millions of litres of bitumen have been oozing to the surface uncontrollably for nearly a year.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) approved CNRL’s application to “modify steaming” at its Primrose and Wolf Lake sites, though the suspension imposed in 2013 remains in place at the Primrose East and Primrose South locations.

“In July, the AER completely restricted steaming operations in the four areas that have bitumen releasing to the surface. Those restrictions remain in place,” AER president and CEO Jim Ellis said in a press release. “We also directed CNRL to modify steaming operations within the rest of its Primrose site, which included reduced volumes and increased monitoring. This application is a direct response to that request.”

The approval includes requirements that CNRL conduct no steaming within 1 km of the site where bitumen continues to flow to the surface, and that the company adopt modified steaming operations, which includes lower injection volumes.

Prior to using steam injection, the company is asked to review all existing wellbores in the vicinity and provide a risk assessment and mitigation plan to address any potential wellbore failures.

CNRL is also required to ensure monitoring protocols are in place to trigger an enhanced response to “potential issues.”

The AER continues to investigate the four bitumen leaks at Primrose and Wolf Lake, where bitumen was first discovered seeping to the surface in May 2013. A separate request from CNRL to resume drilling at those sites was denied by the AER in March.

CNRL was issued a cleanup and remediation order by the Alberta government last September, four months after the company reported bitumen surfacing in four separate areas on its Primrose and Wolf Lake sites.

While a cause has yet to be determined, the company maintains the leaks are the result of wellbore failures, though some independent scientists and environmental groups have suggested the leaks may be due to damage to the caprock caused by steam injected underground at overly high pressures for long periods of time.

Though Ellis said CNRL’s application met all the technical requirements for approval, Greenpeace oilsands campaigner Mike Hudema said allowing the company to continue its in situ oilsands mining while bitumen is still leaking shows the AER has “no teeth.”

“It’s unbelievable that they would allow CNRL to start injecting high-pressure steam within 1.5 km of where bitumen is still leaking into a lake and has been for the last 10 months,” he told The Journal.

“The AER needs to reverse its decision and reject all new steaming applications until its investigation is complete, the spills are stopped and solutions to prevent them are fully identified. Allowing CNRL to re-steam before then just shows CNRL’s profit margin is more important to the Alberta government than the health of its environment or its communities.”

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