Company In Charge Of Ongoing Tar Sands Leaks Wants To Try Again At The Same Site

CREDIT: CNRL/Emma Pullman
CREDIT: CNRL/Emma Pullman

The Canadian company in charge of a tar sands site that’s been leaking oil for about 10 months has applied for permission to resume extracting oil on the site, despite the fact that an investigation into the spill’s causes has yet to be completed.

Canadian Natural Resources, Ltd. applied in February to start pumping high-pressure steam into the ground at their Primrose tar sands project near Cold Lake, Alberta, the site of four ongoing leaks which have so far expelled more than 12,000 barrels of oil onto the forest floor. CNRL’s application is for a site that is outside the one-kilometer (about .6 mile) restricted zone around the leaks which has been off-limits to drilling since last spring when the leaks were discovered. The company says it will reduce the pressure of the steam and increase monitoring to try to prevent more leaks. But since the site sits on the same geological location as the leak site, opponents say that CNRL should not be allowed to resume mining operations there until investigators uncover the cause of the leaks.

“The most responsible course of action is to err on the side of safety,” Erin Flanagan, an analyst with the Pembina Institute, told the Edmonton Journal.

CNRL also applied in December for a permit to begin pumping steam into the ground at a site far closer to the leaks. That application would have allowed CNRL to resume operations inside the restricted zone, but was rejected by the Alberta Energy Regulator, the fossil-fuels funded corporation in charge of regulating Alberta’s tar sands. The application was withdrawn by CNRL after the company learned of the rejection. Flanagan told the Edmonton Journal that the AER’s decision not to grant CNRL that permit was an “encouraging” sign from the regulator, which gained regulatory control of Alberta’s tar sands late last year.

“We felt it was inappropriate to allow steaming to resume before we’ve completed the investigation into the leak at the site,” AER spokesman Bob Curran said of the decision to reject the application.

The AER is investigating the cause of the leaks, which CNRL attributes to faulty wellbores. The company told investors last week that it had cleaned up three out of the four areas impacted by the leaks and that the leaks are “totally solvable” — something it has maintained since last November. But so far, the company has been unable to stop the leaks themselves, though they’ve slowed to a trickle due to cold weather.

The leaks constitute one of the largest bitumen spills in Alberta’s history, but they aren’t the first of their kind. In 2009, a similar seepage incident occurred at the same CNRL site as two of the current leaks. Despite an investigation, the cause of the spill was never determined. The spills have raised concerns about the use of of cyclic steam simulation Alberta, a technique used by CNRL to access underground oil sands which, as the Primrose situation shows, can result in underground leaks that are difficult to stop. The use of CSS is required to reach about 80 percent of Alberta’s tar sands.