AER Failing to Protect Public Interest, Communicate Openly on CNRL Cold Lake Spills

A draft version of a new investigative report released this week by Global Forest Watch and Treeline Ecological Research argues the series of underground leaks currently releasing a mixture of tar sands bitumen and water into a surrounding wetland and forest on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range is related to a similar set of spills caused by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) in-situ operations in 2009.

The cause of the 2009 seepage was never determined and details of an investigation by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), then called the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), weren’t made public until last year, four years after the initial incident.

The new report, called “CNRL’s Persistent 2013 Bitumen Releases Near Cold Lake, Alberta: Facts, Unanswered Questions, and Implications,” takes aim at the AER for allowing certain in-situ, or underground, tar sands extraction technologies to continue without adequately addressing “major unknowns.” The independent investigation reveals the AER continually fails to protect the public interest in relation to these spills and that both industry and government demonstrate 'dysfunction' in their lack of transparency with the public.

CNRL, the company responsible for both the 2009 and current leaks, uses a process called High Pressure Cyclic Steam Stimulation (HPCSS) to fracture underlying bedrock in order to extract bitumen under pressure. HPCSS uses extremely high pressures and temperatures to create underground fractures allowing for the migration of bitumen. According to the ERCB’s investigation of the 2009 incident, these underground fractures were offered as a potential explanation for the uncontrolled release of bitumen above ground.

Despite multiple investigations, regulators and industry were unable to definitively identify the cause of the 2009 incident. The new report’s two authors, Peter Lee and Dr. Kevin Timoney, suggest this lack of certainty makes the company’s continued operation in the area, and use of HPCSS technology, inexplicable.

“In light of the unquantified risks to the bitumen reservoir, groundwater, and the adjacent ecosystems, the decision by the ERCB to allow HPCSS to continue during and after the [2009] incident was unjustified by the available evidence,” the report states.

There are “spatial and temporal” reasons for believing the two incidents are related, claim the authors. An analysis of the time and locations of the seepage shows a consistent pattern of leaks, each migrating outwards from a central location where the 2009 incident occurred.

Although the causes of the incidents remain “unclear,” they write the seepage is “known to involve migration of bitumen emulsion through a network of vertical and horizontal fissures.”

A map of the affected areas in 2013 from the Global Forest Watch report.

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