"No control" on Cold Lake Spill, Energy Regulator says

An image of pooling bitumen emulsion on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, courtesy of Emma Pullman and CNRL.

Canadian Natural Resource Limited (CNRL), the company responsible for a massive ongoing spill on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range southeast of Fort McMurray released a public notice last week claiming the release was “secured” and that “clean-up, recovery and reclamation activities are well under way.”

Cara Tobin, Office of Public Affairs spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator, said that CNRL has yet to bring the release under control. 

The spill, caused by a rare underground spring of bitumen emulsion, is the result of High-Pressure Cyclic Steam Stimulation (HPCSS) technology that forces steam into underlying bitumen reservoirs at temperatures and pressures high enough to fracture underlying formations.

“I don’t want to presume what they mean by [secure] but I can tell you a few things that might help clarify,” she said.

Under usual circumstances with HPCSS heavy bitumen is softened by steam injected under the surface, allowing the resulting water and oil mixture – called bitumen emulsion – to surface up a wellbore.

In this instance the high pressures underground are creating multiple bitumen springs, forcing the oil mixture to the surface in numerous locations including under a body of water.

“With any incident the company would go to the site and identify the outer boundaries of the affected area,” Tobin said.

“There’s two things – one is control and one is containment. What they have done, to the best of my knowledge, is that they have identified the outer extent of the impacted area, which is generally called delineation. I think they were finishing that process [Friday]. And so they are getting to know and rope off the outer extent of the impacted area.”

“So that’s one thing. And that’s basically containment…In this case, this is still an ongoing incident. There is no control on this incident.”

According to CNRL the area of initial impact is 20.7 hectares, or just over 51 acres. The spill volume to date, initially reported at 28 cubic metres, was updated to 950 cubic metres, or nearly 6000 barrels of oil, over the weekend.

“In this case because the incident is ongoing there will continue to be more volume of product coming up to the surface but it’s not going to be impacting any vegetation [other] than what’s already impacted…There will still be more volume of product but it’s not going to be spreading further,” she said.

She added that although this spill is “relatively unique,” an incident of its kind occurred previously on the same CNRL site.

“It’s not like it hasn’t happened before though. We have information on our website, about a similar incident that happened in 2009 and it was the same sort of thing where pressure pushed bitumen to surface and until that pressure was naturally able to recede underground the product continued to – very slowly – come to surface.”

Much like the 2009 incident, the cause of the current spill remains unknown and it is not expected to stop until underground pressure subsides.

“What we’re seeing in this one is that pressure has built up underground and is finding ways to come to surface and we don’t know what the cause of that might be. That will come out in our investigation report. But regardless, it is coming to the surface, very slowly, and it won’t stop until that pressure has gone down underground,” Tobin said.

The rate of the spill remains unreported at this time.

According to documents from the former Alberta Energy Conservation Board (ERCB), now the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), the 2009 release prompted the shut down of the site after bitumen emulsion was seen flowing out from the ground and pooling on the company’s Primrose East site.

A report on the incident says the bitumen emulsion could be observed seeping out of the ground to the south and the east of the well pad, as well as from surface fissures in the area.

The company initiated “emergency flowback to depressurize the formation” in an attempt to stem the release.

“Approximately 11,380 tonnes of solids (including snow, organic material, soil, and bitumen) was ultimately removed from the site for landfill disposal, and 904 cubic metres of bitumen was recovered from the surface of Pad 74 and transported to CNRL’s Wolf Lake Plant,” states the report.

Multiple investigations into the incident over the span of one year were inconclusive and could not ultimately determine how the bitumen emulsion made its way to the surface. The ERCB cited pre-existing unground fractures or a wellbore breach as possible explanations.

In its final summary the ERCB stated “a contributing factor in the release may have been geological weaknesses in combination with stresses induced by high-pressure steam injection.”

HPCSS creates fractures in underground formations to separate bitumen from sand. An AER incident report on the current CNRL release in Cold Lake describes HPCSS as a high-pressure steam injection method that fractures the reservoir to “create cracks and openings through which the bitumen can flow back into the steam-injector wells.”

This story was first reported in DeSmogBlog. 

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Comments

Putting Things in Perspective

This is unfortunate, but mostly from a perspective of public perception.

However, natural upwellings of hydrocarbons to the surface is an every day occurence. For example, California is well known for massive heavy hydrocarbon seepage along its coastal waterways and inland (tar pits).

Check out the following link: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090513130944.htm

Some of these seepages into the Pacific ocean along the coast vary from 8 to 80 times the size of Valdez oil spill in Alaska 22 years ago.

Oil spill

So a "spill which is the result of High Pressure Cyclic Steam Stimulation technology is a "natural occurence"?  Even if there are natural occurences of "upwellings of hydrocarbons" that is not any thing to do with this mess and the lack of control of it. 

Misinformation

the term oil sands is just incorrect. They are tar sands. It's not as if you can stuff some cheese cloth with the stuff and squeeze out WD40 or 3in1

Putting man made emission in perspective

Here are some statistics that throws a different light on this issue.

Last time I looked, global average per capita annual carbon emissioIslas under 2 tons per man per year.

for China : 6 tons

India : 2.5 tons

USA : 20 tons

UK : 9 tons

Canada: 19 tons

Canada minus Alberta &Saskatchewan : 11tons

Alberta: 80 tons

 

80 tons - for Christ's sake, when the world average is about 2 & the sustainable level before we cook ourselverules sleds than what the average now is !!

 

 

@Putting Things into Perspective. Interesting Science Daily article.

We can't do much about natural occurances, buth these 4 leaks aren't natural. Furthermore the rock brings up thinks like uranium to the surface.  It should piss everyone off that these companies are given free reign to destroy our dwindling ecosystems and poison our native food supply.

"Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. operates the Primrose oilsands facility three hours northeast of Edmonton where four ongoing underground oil blowouts have contaminated forest, muskeg, a lake and have already killed dozens animals including beavers, ducks and birds. According to a government scientist who has been to the site, neither government or industry are able to stop the spills...

..."An engineering field visit conducted by CNRL in June to examine impacts from one of the four spills show oil staining over two feet up the trunks of trees, and some completely coated in oil. And based on winter snow coverage, CNRL itself estimates that oil has been leaking for over four months.

The first two underground spills began on May 20 and according to an incident report filed by CNRL, the oil plume was about 200-feet long. The third incident was reported on June 8, but documents suggest the oil has been leaking for months longer."

a bit of education

thisIsaNameOMG wrote:

the term oil sands is just incorrect. They are tar sands. It's not as if you can stuff some cheese cloth with the stuff and squeeze out WD40 or 3in1

You might want to read up on what "tar" is and how it's made.  Assuming you have at least a bit of science education you will be able to understand.  If not, then just carry on ignorantly making stupid statements.

it's a waste of time Joseph

Joseph wrote:

This is unfortunate, but mostly from a perspective of public perception.

However, natural upwellings of hydrocarbons to the surface is an every day occurence. For example, California is well known for massive heavy hydrocarbon seepage along its coastal waterways and inland (tar pits).

Check out the following link: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090513130944.htm

Some of these seepages into the Pacific ocean along the coast vary from 8 to 80 times the size of Valdez oil spill in Alaska 22 years ago.

You are wasting your time to point out facts Joseph as it seems clear that most of those posting here haven't a clue about what goes on in the real world and can't understand it even if it's explained to them.

Interesting Consideration

I find it interesting how some people find it unacceptable that accidental spills of hydrocarbons occurs, yet purposeful release of the same is perfectly acceptable?

Consider the fact that we pore millions of barrels of bitumen on our roads, highways, over bridges and parking lots, and no one blinks an eye.

Likewise, we pore hydrocarbon derived detergents, lotions, soaps and cleaning agents down our sinks and toilets each and every day of the year. These material enter the natural environment with little to no treatment, and yet somehow our metropolitan existence is not guilty?

Canadian cities alone purposefully discharge 3 trillion litres of toxic sewage effluent to our water ways each and every year, and yet CNRL is some how an example of irresponsible social behavior?

oil sands or tar sands?

Tar is really just thick oil...OK.

We also use acid for certain things, but that doesn't mean accidental spills of acid are nothing to be concerned about.

Plastics and soaps can be made from many things, even banana peels.  We do not have to rely on petroleum to maintain our standard of living.  Only Big Oil is at stake if we cut back our dependence on petroleum.

oilsands are NOT oil bogs like in cartoons.

this is my home. this oil is 1500 feet below the surface. animals do not get trapped here normally like in the Flintstones. unless and until oil companies use fresh drinking water and chemicals to force fluids under high pressure into the ground with steam for years and force oil to come up under any fault naturally but far more likely faults that are caused by cyclic steam injection and - 40° c freezing temperatures and +40°c summer flux. now that this oil has leaked 6 times with this just one oil company and so yes now animals are stuck to the surface and our ground and top water is contaminated. and that's only what's visable on the surface. thank our Conservative and local municipal and Provincial governments for this directly.