Two Oil Spills in Alberta Due to Inadequate Monitoring

Companies responsible for two separate oil spills in Alberta failed to provide adequate oversight for their operations, according to federal government documents released by Environment Canada through Access to Information legislation.

The documents detail how Devon Canada and Gibson Energy violated environmental laws, including the federal Fisheries Act, when their operations cause two oil spills into fish-bearing waterways in 2010.

Gibson Energy, a midstream pipeline operator, spilled a few hundred litres of oil into an Edmonton creek after failing to properly abandon an unused pipeline. According to a warning letter issued to the company from Environment Canada, "Gibson Energy ULC made a business decision to keep the Kinder Morgan lateral full of crude oil and to not purge it with nitrogen."

The pipeline released a "brown foamy substance" into the waterway, indicating the pipeline suffered internal corrosion. "Based on information obtained, I have reason to believe Gibson Energy ULC was responsible for the release of a deleterious substance into (a creek) leading to the North Saskatchewan River and they were not duly diligent in preventing this release," wrote an Edmonton-based inspector and Environment Canada fisheries inspector, Deanna Cymbaluk.

Violations of this kind can encur a fine of up to $1 million or three years in prison in Canada. Similar infractions in the United States are often met with heavy fines and penalties levied against operators.

When Postmedia's Mike De Souza contacted Gibson Energy, communications manager Nicole Collard, refused to comment on the two-year old file, saying "we're not interested in participating in this." The Alberta regulator Energy Resources Conservation Board issued Gibson a "high-risk non-compliance" order for "improperly discontinuing/abandoning a pipeline."

An additional spill, of 350,000 litres, or the equivalent of 3,000 barrels of oil, occurred when a blowout could not be contained for 36 hours by Devon Canada, a major operator in the tar sands.

At the time Devon was conducting steam-assisted gravity drainage oil production, a process that uses steam to heat underground bitumen, allowing the viscous substance to more freely flow up a well-bore. The relatively new technique poses new operational challenges industry may not always be prepared for.

In this instance, Devon lost control of the procedure at its Jackfish facility after a combination of human error and damage cause by sand erosion caused a well failure. According to Environment Canada's Cymbaluk, Devon had "poorly documented protocols" and a "lack of planning for a well failure" at the time of the accident.

Tim Waters, manager of operations engineering at Devon told Postmedia "there were certain risk areas around the well-head and how the wells were operated that we didn't fully understand, quite honestly."

Devon is one of many tar sands operators hoping to improve their image through public relations campaigns. Recently Devon released a series of television commercials intended to highlight the company's environmental stewardship at its Jackfish facility.

Greenpeace's Keith Stewart suggests the commercials can't undo the industry's operational shortcomings: "When the oil industry's poster child for clean water can't stop a blow-out for 36 hours, it makes me wish we had stronger truth-in-advertising laws in this country."

Waters, however, maintains the commercials are accurate and demonstrate Devon's concern for the environment.

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