Tar sands leaks in Alberta, Canada, that were reported last May — and may have started months earlier — still haven’t been stopped.
Now, a new report says more urgency needs to be placed on finding the cause of the leaks, which so far have expelled more than 12,000 barrels (or maybe even more) of tar sands mixed with water onto the forest floor, making the leaks the fourth-largest release of bitumen recorded in Alberta.
The report, published by Global Forest Watch Canada, looked at the May 20 spill at the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) Primrose tar sands project near Cold Lake, Alberta, where four underground wells began leaking early last year. In October, the Alberta government ordered CNRL to find the cause of the leaks, which the company has since determined were due to faulty wellbores — a “technical, operational challenge that is totally solvable,” CNRL president Steve Laut said in November.
The company says it’s identified the wells behind the leaks and has so far found mechanical failures in two of them. But, as of January, the leaks still continued. The Alberta Energy Regulator is still investigating the cause of the leaks, however, and hasn’t come to a conclusion on what started them.
Spills like this, the report says, call into question the methods of cyclic steam stimulation, an in-situ form of extracting oil that pushes high-pressure steam underground, creating cracks in rock from which trapped oil can escape. This method is used at the Primrose facility, and is necessary to reach about 80 percent of Alberta’s tar sands.
The process has been linked to spills before. In 2009, there was a similar seepage incident at the same CNRL sites as two of the current leaks, the cause of which was never determined. And last month, a fifth leak was discovered at the Cold Lake site, though it released oil only underground and has been stopped. The report states that, if more isn’t learned quickly about this type of extraction, it may be putting the environment at risk of more of these types of difficult to control spills.
“Expansion of in situ methods of bitumen exploitation across Alberta is outpacing the increase in knowledge of the potential below-ground and surface impacts of these methods,” the report reads. “By the time the effects of these methods are sufficiently understood, it may be too late to remediate.”
The report also states that more needs to be done to provide the public with timely, accurate information in the event of a spill. The details of the investigation from the now-defunct Energy Resources Conservation Board investigation into the 2009 leaks were just made public last year, the report says, meaning there was a four-year delay in information.
“When the failure to inform is combined with major environmental incidents and a regulator that fails to err on the side of caution, the public interest suffers,” the report’s co-author Kevin Timoney told the Vancouver Tyee.