April 23, 2014 8:19 pm

Regulator gives oil company green light to resume operations near major spill site

EDMONTON – Allowing an oilsands company to resume operations in an area where it is still trying to fix persistent bitumen leaks is undermining the credibility of Alberta’s energy regulator, critics say.

Last Thursday, the regulator approved a request by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. to resume steaming bitumen from wells in the Primrose field near Cold Lake that are close to seepage that has been occurring since last summer.

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The regulator says the steaming operation can be no closer than one kilometre from the leaks and must be conducted at low pressure.

“The application came in in February; and based on the technical and scientific merit, we feel that this is a safe application to resume modified steaming,” said Carrie Rosa, a senior advisor with the Alberta Energy Regulator.

“We’re confident that it will not impact the ongoing incident that’s currently happening in the four sites within Primrose,” she added.

Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman doesn’t believe it makes sense, though, to allow the company to resume operations before it’s known why the spill on its site is happening.

“I think for the regulator to allow them to resume in any way shape or form, even with less pressure, even a kilometre away, is really frightening,” said Blakeman.

“I don’t know what power CNRL has over this government, but it is significant.”

Erin Flanagan of the Pembina Institute, a green-energy think-tank that opposed CNRL’s request, said the safest thing to do would have been to refuse any new steaming until the investigation into the company’s ongoing leak was finished. She pointed out that CNRL has a history of pressure-related blowouts.

As the oilsands industry increasingly moves toward so-called in situ techniques such as steam injection, it’s important the regulator retain public confidence, Flanagan said.

“If it does happen again, it has implications for the whole in situ industry,” she said. “This is increasingly an extraction mechanism that is being scrutinized by the public because of what’s going on at Primrose.”

Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema agreed the regulator should reverse its decision until its investigation is complete and seepage into a lake is stopped.

“If you started to believe that Alberta’s energy regulator had teeth, it’s now clear they just fell out,” Hudema said in a release Tuesday.

“It’s unbelievable that it would allow CNRL to start injecting high-pressure steam within 1 1/2 kilometres of where bitumen is still leaking into a lake.”

Hudema suggested the approval shows the regulator is more attentive to corporate profits than public health.

The regulator has said CNRL must step up its monitoring and check all other wells in the area to ensure that more steam won’t cause them to leak.

In a statement to Global News, a CNRL spokesperson says the well in question is not a new well, but an application for the next cycle of steaming at an existing well, which is not a part of the shut-in areas.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the spill continues; and once the answer into why it happened is clear, officials say necessary changes will be made.

“We don’t set timelines,” said Rosa. “It’s a very complex issue there, so we need all the time we can to make sure it’s right.”

The regulator ordered the suspension of steaming operations within the eastern part of the company’s Primrose field in 2013 following three bitumen emulsion releases.

In late June, Canadian Natural reported a fourth release, prompting the regulator to order the company to stop steaming within one kilometre of the leak and to restrict steaming throughout the northern and southern parts of the Primrose field.

Steaming restrictions remain in place within one kilometre of where the leaks occurred.

With files from Tom Vernon, Global News

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