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Two New Possible Sources of Underground Oil Seepage Identified at CNRL Tar Sands Operations

The ongoing seepage of bitumen emulsion – a mixture of heavy tar sands oil and water – on Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s (CNRL) Cold Lake operations is now reportedly occurring on six sites, up from a previously reported four.

The two new sites were identified by the Cold Lake First Nation, according to a press statement released early Monday.

“Our people want answers and factual information on the contamination of now, six surface releases of bitumen oil,” said Cecil Janvier, Council Member and Media Spokesperson for the Cold Lake First Nation.

The Cold Lake First Nation says they want greater involvement in the ongoing release of oil on their traditional Treaty 6 territory and suggest that they have been left in the dark by CNRL.

High-pressure cyclic steam stimulation or HPCSS is used by CNRL to fracture underground rock and heat up deep reservoirs of bitumen, allowing a resulting mixture of bitumen and water to surface up a wellbore. In CNRL’s current operations several uncontrolled fissures are leaking bitumen above ground, possibly due to unintended fractures below. The company claims the mechanical failure of a wellbore is to blame, although the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) states there is no known cause for the ongoing leakage at this time.

Multiple investigations into the cause of a similar 2009 underground release were inconclusive, although the Energy Resources Conservation Board (now AER) stated “a contributing factor in the release may have been geological weaknesses in combination with stresses induced by high-pressure steam injection.”

The current series of underground leaks have forced more than 1.4 million litres of bitumen emulsion to surface on the ground and in a body of water near the company’s operations. The leaks are still uncontrolled at this time.

“I'm really distressed about the safety of our drinking water, animals, vegetation and how this is affecting the aquifers underneath our Dene lands. Our future generations will not be able to enjoy what once was pristine Denesuline territory. Animals such as wolves and bears are now migrating through our community, which is a safety risk and precaution. The environment is changing and definitely not for the positive,” stated Chief Bernice Martial in the press release.

CNRL investor relations spokesperson Zoe Addington contradicts the Cold Lake First Nation’s claims, saying “there have been no further discoveries of bitumen to surface.”

“Canadian Natural Resources Limited reported that bitumen emulsion was discovered at surface at four separate locations. The discoveries were immediately reported to the Alberta Energy Regulator and concurrently crews were dispatched to initiate necessary action. Each location has been secured and clean-up, recovery and reclamation activities are progressing well. Regular updates can be found on our website at: www.cnrl.com,” she told DeSmog Canada in an email statement.

Currently CNRL is the only body reporting on the rate and volume of the release. The AER, the province’s main oil and gas industry regulator, is reporting CNRL’s figures on its website.

“These numbers are not absolute, they’re not final,” says Bob Curran from the AER, “they may be adjusted as new information comes to light.”

“They’re not indicative of anything except the fact that they’re being updated at this point. I don’t know how much stock you can put into them other than we’re updating information with the information that we’re given as quickly as we can.”

“These aren’t numbers that we’re saying we’ve 100 per cent verified but these are number that are being reported to us. I think there’s an important caveat on that,” he said.

Curran says that it is normal for industry to report its own figures in an instance like this. “We certainly try to verify those figures but yes it’s their facility, it’s their issue that they have to deal with. Our role is to ensure they are responding appropriately.”

The AER has released several updated incident reports on the leakage as part of its larger effort to provide information on “energy-related incidents that may impact the public,” their website states.

The AER first reported on the incident on June 24th, claiming 28 cubic metres of bitumen were released. The most up-to-date figures, released September 6, 2013, claim that more than 1444 cubic metres, or more than 1.4 million litres, of bitumen emulsion have been recovered so far from the uncontrolled seepage. 

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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