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.
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.