More than five months later, a series of oil spills in northern Alberta are still far from being solved. Four active leaks were first noticed in May 2013, on a Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) site near the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. As of September 15, the estimated total bitumen released was 1.2 million liters, with 2,000 more added each day. No headway has been made since then to stop the leaks.
The problem lies in the technology used by CNRL to extract bitumen coupled with geologic instabilities in the area. Steam is injected at high pressures to heat bitumen, allowing it to flow and be extracted more easily. In this case, however, steam was injected at too high a pressure, causing cracks to form in the rock and bitumen to be released into the lake nearby. It is impossible to predict when the leak will slow, but it will continue until much of the pressure in the rock has been released. This is not CNRL’s first offense in this department. A similar spill occurred at the same site in 2009.
In an unprecedented motion, Alberta Environment has asked CNRL to drain a large part of the contaminated lake before it freezes in the winter. This is the first step in attempting to mitigate the potentially disastrous risks to wildlife and the surrounding environment. The environmental protection order released by Alberta Environment has also given CNRL until spring of 2014 to ensure full remediation and restoration of the affected area. The spill continues to be monitored and investigated by Alberta Environment and Environment Canada.