Uncontrolled CNRL Tar Sands Spill Ongoing, 1.4M Litres Recovered

CNRL Cold Lake tar sands bitumen spill

New figures released yesterday from the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) show a concerted effort is still underway to clean up the growing amount of bitumen emulsion – a mixture of tar sands oil and water – that is pooling in a forested area surrounding Canada Natural Resource Ltd.’s Cold Lake project.

The cause of the seepage, which shows no sign of subsiding, has yet to be determined.

AER’s updated volumes show that the total amount of bitumen emulsion recovered on four separate spill sites amounts to 1444.4 cubic metres, a volume equivalent to 1.4 million litres of oil.

In addition, cleanup crews have removed 494 cubic metres of oily vegetation from the forested landscape and an additional 1049.62 metric tonnes – equivalent to 2.3 million pounds – of “impacted soils.”

The AER’s previous figures, released August 29th, stated 1275.7 cubic metres of bitumen emulsion had been recovered to date, the equivalent of 1.2 million litres.

Between the dates of August 29th and September 6th roughly 168,800 litres of bitumen emulsion were recovered, equaling around 1062 barrels of oil equivalent, or an average of 150 barrels per day.

CNRL, the company responsible for the in-situ operations that led to the seepage, put out a release dated August 25-31 that claims the rate of bitumen emulsion release amounts to less than 20 barrels of bitumen emulsion per day.

The disparity between CNRL’s figures  a release of 20 barrels per day  and the AER recovery figures – of 150 barrels per day – is due to unrecovered bitumen emulsion on site, according to CNRL public affairs advisor Zoe Addington. CNRL is cleaning up more per day than is currently leaking, she said.

Original CNRL images released to reporter Emma Pullman show oil pooled high in a forested area, presenting both the company and provincial regulators with an extraordinarily difficult cleanup.

The CNRL statement also claims the company is “focusing on a reduced impact area of 13.5 hectares, a 35% reduction” since original reporting.

The AER report states 20.7 hectares have been impacted from the ongoing release.

CNRL is still working to recover bitumen, remove soil, manage contaminated water and expose fissures where bitumen emulsion is migrating to the surface on three of the leakage sites, says the AER. The company is also recovering bitumen, agitating and skimming oil from the surface of a water body and removing vegetation from the fourth site.

The AER also reports that to date 2 beavers, 43 birds, 104 amphibians and 40 small mammals are deceased as a result of the release.

CNRL’s latest statement reads, “unfortunately some animal fatalities have occurred and three beavers, seventeen birds and two small mammals are being cared for at a Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre…”

As part of an ongoing subsurface investigation CNRL is drilling hydrogeological and delineation wells around the affected locations and has cited “mechanical failures” as the presumed cause of the continuous leaks, although the AER recently told DeSmog Canada the cause remains unknown.

CNRL was responsible for a similar release in 2009 that was likely caused by underground fractures, according to a report by the Energy Resources Conservation Board, the former AER.

According to Cara Tobin, spokesperson for the AER, the current spill “is in the same operational area” as the 2009 release. “These are releases coming up from basically cracks in the ground, not from the well pad,” she said. Although, she adds, it is too early to say what might be the cause of this particular series of underground leaks.

We do not have the technical data or evidence to verify what that cause might be…We will determine that through our investigation process,” she said.

Last week Environment Canada announced a federal investigation into the seepage is underway alongside two separate investigations at the provincial level.


Thanks for your ongoing coverage of this Carol.  I rarely see a blip in mainstream media.

I'm surprised more environmentalists haven't picked up on this.  When ducks landed on Syncrude's ponds, Alberta oil was plastered everywhere in a really bad light.  I think that event caused a serious shift in tar sands perceptions.

This is much worse.  Why isn't it plastered all over the internet and all over mainstream media?

That's a really good question, AnOilMan. I think in part it has to do with the nature of the spill - slow. But I'm hoping in time it will become a major topic in mainstream media once again, one that allows us to discuss in a meaningful way the perils of in-situ extraction and perhaps poor reporting and regulatory regimes.

Gwynn Dyer used to talk about US wars over seas, and at what point the Dover Principle (? may have the name wrong) kicks in.  How many bodies do they have to ship to back home before American troops pull out of action.  It wasn't much in Samalaia. (Note: No longer applies, Drones are forever.)

So how many ducks have to die?

Does anyone have cameras on the ground?

Not as far as I know. The company, CNRL, has intermittently let media onto the site but it is extremely remote - which perhaps part of the reason why this story isn't getting the traction it deserves.

And to your point about the Dover principle or Dover criterion, I think you're right on the money. The question of 'what are we willing to sacrifice?' can be extended to address a number of externalized costs such as increasing pollution of our atmosphere and water, increased carbon output, dwindling caribou herds, fragmented wilderness and loss of habitat, loss of wolves, devastation of downstream communities. If we were to ask ourselves what we would be willing to pay to extract this heavy source of oil, how much would we be willing to throw in the pot?

The Calgary Herald and the local Bonnyville paper did report it initially. But the media has learned ever since the Syncrude duck kills not to cover too much negative news of the tar sands. Indeed, Calgary Herald business op-ed columnist Deborah Yedlin is giving a talk sponsored by APEGA on Sept 11 called: “Canadian Oil: the Battle to Change Public Perception, Nationally and Internationally.”

Here's part of the blurb for her talk.

“Despite having very rigorous environmental standards, Canada's energy sector faces reputational challenges both domestically and internationally. Addressing and solving this issue remains critical to the country's future economic prosperity.”

The Syncrude tailings ponds killed approx 1600 ducks. This emulsion spill is no where near as deadly so far. But if they can't stop it, it may exceed the Syncrude toll.

It is disconcerting that the world's best in situ HPCSS engineers can't figure out exactly how the emulsion is leaking or from where. Such high pressure steam injection creates the same sort of underground fracturing of sediment as gas fracking. HPCSS uses a lot more pressure than other methods like SAGD.

Please keep us updated  on this story, Carol.

I was kinda insulted to get the invite.

Its one thing to have a hard time making decisions about the environment, but its quite another to host political speeches.

I most certainly will, Peter. This is a really big story and my hope is that with some continuous coverage in the independent media it will return to the MSM. I'm in regular contact with the Alberta Energy Regulator and trying to keep up with the details as they are made know. Thanks for your readership and always interesting comments!