Blog | August 14, 2013

Fort McMurray Today, By Vincent McDermottMore than 20 environmental and landowner groups are demanding a public inquiry into underground steam injection for bitumen extraction, five days after Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. apologized for a months-long oil spill in the Cold Lake area.Since May 20, bitumen has been bubbling to the surface near several CNRL steam injection sites. The eruptions have caused damage to First Nations and Metis territories, and the Canadian Forces’ Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.In a Tuesday letter to the Alberta Energy Regulator, several advocacy groups argued this was not the first time a steam project has run into unexplainable mechanical problems, and that the technology needed to be re-evaluated. "It is time for a broader discussion of the safety and regulation of steam injection given these recurring events," says Greenpeace spokesperson Mike Hudema. "The AER needs to reassure the Alberta public and other stakeholders that it has the regulations in place to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future."The group points to similar events as evidence for their cause. Specifically, a steam release at Total E&P’s Joslyn Creek site in 2006, Decon Canada’s Jackfish operation in 2010, and a similar eruption from CNRL’s Primrose East operation in 2009. CNRL’s most recent numbers, dating back to Aug. 5, reveal the company has removed 7,500 barrels - or nearly 1.2 million litres - of oil from the region. Dozens of animals have been killed in the area and vegetation has been cleared. There is also concern about damage to underground water sources.“We take responsibility for this incident that happened,” Steve Laut, president of CNRL, told reporters during an Aug. 8 media tour of the spill areas. “We did not want to see this damage occur and we’re very sorry it happened.”Both the company and the provincial government do not know when the bitumen will stop oozing out of the ground.“You’ll know it stops when you see it stop flowing,” said Laut.Under traditional in situ operations, pumps inject steam deep underground into a horizontal well. The superheated temperatures and water vapour loosen the thick, heavy bitumen. Gravity pulls the liquefied material into a separate well, where it is pumped to the surface.This technique leaves the surface environment largely unaffected, sparing the area from open-pit mining. Approximately half of current oilsands production comes from in-situ techniques and could one day account for 80% of oilsands extraction.“It’s important that we get this right,” says Carolyn Campbell, Conservation Specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.CNRL says steam injection technology has been used successfully for the last 25 years, and blames the incident on old well bores. Laut says the company, which has used has contained the affected areas and is constantly monitoring each site. He also says the company has a plan to avoid this from happening again. There are currently 200 CNRL employees involved in cleanup efforts. “We understand the cause and we know how to prevent it and we will get this thing back in shape and make sure this doesn't happen again in the future," said Laut. “We did not want to see this damage occur and we’re very sorry it happened.”The AER, however, says they do not know the cause and has ordered CNRL to reduce the amount of steam pumped into the ground.The co-signers of Tuesday's letter tot he AER include:Alberta Surface Right Group Alberta Wilderness Association Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique (AQLPA)Canada’s Citizen Climate LobbyCanadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE)Canadian Voice of Women for PeaceCanadian Youth Climate Coalition (CYCC)Central Athabasca Stewardship SocietyChange AlbertaClearwater FoundationEquiterreEnvironmental DefenceFor our Grandchildren (4RG)Greenpeace CanadaKeepers of the AthabascaPeace River Environmental SocietyPipe Up NetworkPublic Interest AlbertaSierra Club Prairie Chapter Springvale Surface Rights GroupUnited Landowners of AlbertaWilderness CommitteeYinke Dene Alliance ChiefsRead the article at Fort McMurray Today.Read also from the Canadian Press, Groups demand probe amid CNRL bitumen leakRead the letter