March 10, 2014 1:52 pm

Alberta regulator rejects CNRL request to steam at active spill site

Canadian Natural Resources, Ltd. provides media access to spills at its Primrose site near the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range in northeast Alberta. August 8, 2013.

Vassy Kapelos, Global News

Alberta’s Energy Regulator has rejected Canadian Natural Resources Limited’s request to start steam operations amid a series of spills that have been oozing bitumen nonstop since last May.

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No one seems to know how to stop the bitumen from spilling (more than 1 million litres so far) from multiple locations on the Northern Alberta site, but CNRL applied to resume its steaming operations in that area, anyway.

Last Friday, two days after a Global News story about a separate CNRL application to start high-pressure steam operations nearby, the regulator told CNRL it was out of luck.

“The AER informed CNRL that its application to resume steaming in the restricted zone of the Primrose project area would be denied. CNRL opted to withdraw its application at that time,” spokesperson Bob Curran said in an email Monday.

“The AER determined that it was premature to approve this application, in light of the ongoing investigation into the leaks at Primrose.”

The decision comes as welcome  news to environmental activists leery at the idea of allowing CNRL to resume the same kind of operations it was conducting when the series of spills began almost a year ago – especially as it still isn’t clear what started the ongoing spills, or how to prevent them in future.

CNRL says the culprit is faulty old wellbores that should have been sealed up; but others question how four of these now-disused extraction holes within the rock could fail at once – or how one faulty wellbore could result in multiple spills reaching the surface several kilometres apart.

“Upon further review of our steam flood application at Primrose East, with the AER, it was decided more technical studies would be conducted before we would continue [with] the application,” said CNRL spokesperson Zoe Addington.

“Canadian Natural continues to work closely with the AER on our causation review and ongoing operations at Primrose.”

A separate application – one that would allow CNRL to start high-pressure steam operations as close as 500 metres from one of the spill sites – is still under review, the regulator says.

“”We’re glad that the AER listened to the growing public calls and turned down CNRL’s mind-boggling application to re-start operations directly in it’s active spill site. The AER now needs to turn down CNRL’s other application to re-steam the area just adjacent to the on-going spills,” said Greenpeace’s Climate and Energy campaigner Mike Hudema.

He added he’d like to see a large-scale review of in-situ extraction technology. The regulator has already hit the brakes on shallow in-situ extraction near the oilsands, for fear of what it’d do to the caprock.

“What these ongoing, uncontrollable, 9-month-plus-long spills tell us,” Hudema said, “is that there are major safety gaps in information about our understanding of underground tar sands extraction technology that need to be addressed before the government approves any more tar sands in-situ projects.”

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