Tar sands oil spills underground for months in Alberta, no end in sight

• July 25, 2013
tar sands oil spills

These spills are only the most recent in a long string of incidents. Here, tar sands oil spills in Arkansas in March 2013. Creative Commons: National Wildlife Federation Blog, 2013

Tar sands oil has been spilling beneath Alberta’s boreal forests for months and neither industry nor government know how to stop it. The four spills are currently estimated to have released at least 4,500 barrels of oil, and reports show that at least one may have been leaking since the winter.

News of the spills comes with a new report that raises concerns about Alberta’s ability to safely oversee the tar sands industry’s hazardous activities: researchers found that 99% of the tar sands industry’s environmental violations resulted in no penalty or fines.

Four underground ‘oil blowouts’ have contaminated forests, waterways, and wildlife in Cold Lake, Alberta. The spills have left 34 tons (30,600 kgs) of vegetation covered in oil, dozens of animals dead and two-foot-high coats of oil on tree trunks.

A concerned scientist, who requested anonymity for fear of losing their job, said of the industry and government response to the spills:

Everybody is freaking out about this. We don’t understand what happened. Nobody really understands how to stop it from leaking, or if they do they haven’t put the measures into place.

The first two underground spills were reported on May 20th, but the Alberta Energy Regulator kept them under wraps, despite an oil plume reportedly reaching 200 feet. A third spill was reported on June 8th, but it is believed to have been leaking for months, possibly since winter. The Alberta Energy Regulator failed to report any of these spills to the public until after the fourth spill on July 18th, citing that the first three incidents had “no public impacts” and “negligible environmental impacts.”

The concerned scientist also reported that the underground ‘in situ’ extraction method used at these sites has likely “created fractures from the reservoir to the surface that [the industry] didn’t expect.”

The corporation responsible for the spills, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., is not clearly reporting the scope of the four spills to the public, yet has been granted permission to continue some extraction at one of the sites. Their history casts doubt on the safety of their operations: they had 18 reportable spills and 18 confirmed well casing failures in 2012.

A new report by Drs. Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee revealed that of over 4,000 violations of Alberta’s environmental regulations by the tar sands industry, less than 1% resulted in fines or enforcement actions by the government. Of this 1%, most were minor financial penalties — the median fine over the last 16 years was $4,500 — and the researchers found that media and public attention on the violations often facilitated enforcement.

This analysis, with news of the oil spill that can’t be stopped, deeply undermines the efficacy of the regulatory system reportedly put in place to protect human health and the environment in Alberta from the dangerous activities of the tar sands industry.

Danielle Droitsch, director of the Canada Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the spill:

As this tar sands oil well blowout spreads unabated, we see once again that environmental damage from this industry is appallingly widespread, breathtakingly common, poorly overseen and largely kept from the public… Not only does it release even more climate pollution than tar sands strip-mining, but it clearly is a threat to the surrounding landscape that industry doesn’t know how to handle.

Global leaders are likely to be watching for Canada’s next move in response to the spill, as U.S. President Barack Obama weighs the fate of the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline and the European Union debates an additional cost on tar sands oil based on the Fuel Quality Directive.

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About the Author

Emily is a graduate of St. Mary's College of Maryland with a B.A. in psychology. While in school, she spent her time leading environmental and social justice campaigns. She recently worked for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network as a grassroots organizer for a moratorium on natural gas fracking in Maryland.

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