‘Nobody understands’ spills at Alberta oil sands operation; UPDATED

An oil spill in a tar sand operation in Northern Alberta has been going on for weeks and nobody seems to understand how it happened or how to stop it.

From The Toronto Star:

Oil spills at a major oil sands operation in Alberta have been ongoing for at least six weeks and have cast doubts on the safety of underground extraction methods, according to documents obtained by the Star and a government scientist who has been on site.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. has been unable to stop an underground oil blowout that has killed numerous animals and contaminated a lake, forest, and muskeg at its operations in Cold Lake, Alta.

The documents indicate that, since cleanup started in May, some 26,000 barrels of bitumen mixed with surface water have been removed, including more than 4,500 barrels of bitumen.

The company’s operations use an “in situ” or underground extraction technology called “cyclic steam stimulation,” which involves injecting thousands of gallons of superhot, high-pressure steam into deep underground reservoirs. This heats and liquefies the hard bitumen and creates cracks through which the bitumen flows and is then pumped to the surface.

The scientist, who asked not to be named for fear of losing their job, said the operation was in chaos.

“Everybody (at the company and in government) is freaking out about this,” said the scientist. “We don’t understand what happened. Nobody really understands how to stop it from leaking, or if they do they haven’t put the measures into place.”

Oil companies have said in situ methods are more environmentally friendly than the open-pit mining often associated with the Alberta oil sands, but in situ is more carbon and water-intensive.

“In the course of injecting steam they’ve created fractures from the reservoir to the surface that they didn’t expect,” said the scientist, who is speaking out over concern that neither the company nor Alberta’s regulatory bodies would properly address the situation.

In many ways this is a similar problem to fugitive emissions in fracking operations, except instead of methane escaping into the atmosphere you have poo’s bitumen contaminating the forest and killing wildlife.

UPDATE: MoJo has more. This is a leak, not a spill; it is more akin to a slow-motion Deepwater Horizon; unfortunately there is no single point that can be capped off. It seems likely that a large surface pool of hydrocarbons  is going to form, and nobody has a clear idea of how large.

6 thoughts on “‘Nobody understands’ spills at Alberta oil sands operation; UPDATED

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    1. Looks the spills talked about the the Globe Article are different than the one in the Toronto Star article. That is not a good sign.

      Neither is this:
      Underground oil spills at an Alberta oilsands operation have been going on much longer than previously thought, according to new documents. Files released to the Toronto Star show the spills were discovered nine weeks ago, but new documents show that bitumen has been leaking since the winter.

  1. Hi Dan:

    I’m guessing that the >1,000 geologists employed in Ft. McMurray know the answer but are not telling the media – would You! Check the California oil field that has been oozing forever – straight out into the ocean towards Santa Catalina. The other oozing of oil – this one straight into a nearby stream – is in New Zealand. These are a couple of the ones with heavy flows in populated areas. There are many others to pick on.

    Are you specifically targeting Alberta? So, tell me, are you blogging as a matter of correcting or contributing to science or are you just hiding an underlying political agenda. Canada is trying much harder to save the environment than other countries and uses twice as many renewables as Denmark. It’s not our fault that everyone wants to pay us $100/bbl of oil. The consumers are the problem – not the crude pushers!

    A better tact would be to get people off oil and coal by asking them to refuse all air/auto travel and heat their homes with wood or thermal.

    We are a small country with a small population – go pick on someone else please!


    1. Planet3.0 is a global site, but it takes a special interest in Canada as the principal participants are Canadian citizens and most of the advisory board lives or has lived in Canada.

      Dan lives in Vancouver and covers the Canadian beat for Planet3.0.

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