Four months ago Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) reported the first of four uncontrolled bitumen releases at its Primrose operation in northeastern Alberta.
More than 1.4 million litres of oil have already been released, but the spills have yet to be stopped. Oil continues to flow, contaminating surrounding ecosystems and killing wildlife. To date 104 amphibians, 43 birds, 40 small mammals and two beavers have died in the oily mess and the death toll continues to rise.
CNRL states that the spills are the result of oil flowing up through one or more poorly sealed wellbores. The Primrose operation is a cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) process in which steam is injected into the ground at high pressure to heat and release bitumen deposits.
Meanwhile, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) says that the source and cause of the releases is unknown.
This ongoing spill isn’t the first time steam injection processes have caused uncontrolled releases to the surface. In the early 1980s, a Texaco oilsands pilot project suffered a blowout. Total E&P Canada had a release at its steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) project in 2006, and Devon Canada had a release at its Jackfish SAGD operation in 2010.
This isn’t the first time a CNRL operation has had problems either. In fact, this isn’t the first time there’s been a problem at the Primrose operation: In 2009, a leak was reported at Primrose. In a report issued four years later, the AER said it could not conclusively determine the cause of the release. The report also indicated that the release had contaminated a groundwater aquifer in the area.
While SAGD and CSS in-situ processes currently account for about 50 per cent of Alberta’s oilsands production, that percentage is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years. And if recent history is any indication, that activity will only put more of Alberta’s wildlife, surface water and groundwater at risk.
That is why it is critical the AER strictly regulate oilsands extraction processes to reduce the chance of these all-too-common leaks and releases.
Unfortunately, the AER is fumbling its duty to protect the environment. In the wake of this ongoing spill, twenty-three environmental groups — with Ecojustice’s assistance — sent the AER a letter requesting that it conduct a public inquiry on the safety of oil sands CSS and SAGD operations.
The AER promptly denied that request, stating that: “CSS and high pressure cyclic steam stimulation have been successfully used as bitumen recovery techniques in Alberta for many years.” It also added that a public inquiry would “not provide any new information that may be able to support or guide regulatory change.”
In other words, the AER has chosen to deny that there is a problem and do nothing. All the while oil continues to flow at the CNRL Primrose site and new oilsands projects continue to be approved.
It’s not right. And so, Ecojustice continues to work with Alberta environmental groups to determine a response to the AER’s failure to take this issue seriously. Stay tuned.