Scrutiny after Oil Sands Accident ; Leak Leads Investigators in Canada to Re-Examine Steam Extraction Method

By Krauss, Clifford | International New York Times, May 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

Scrutiny after Oil Sands Accident ; Leak Leads Investigators in Canada to Re-Examine Steam Extraction Method


Krauss, Clifford, International New York Times


A leak last year has led regulators in Canada to re-examine production that uses steam under pressure to separate oil from subterranean sands.

In the annals of oil well blowouts and pipeline disasters, the 7,400 barrels of oily slush that oozed out of the mossy bogs of the boreal forest in northeast Alberta last summer may seem like a trivial matter.

No one was hurt in the accident, which spread across at least 17 acres in the Primrose oil sands field, and the most damage to wildlife came from the killing of about 70 frogs in a lake contaminated by the leak. It has since been drained.

But while the accident has so far been overshadowed by the controversy over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline south of the border, it has nevertheless stirred nervous misgivings throughout the oil sands industry and drawn an unusually intense response from Alberta regulators, who have traditionally had a cozy relationship with the oil companies.

In a move that has raised eyebrows in the industry, officials of the Alberta Energy Regulator have refused to accept the explanations for the cause of the accident by Canadian Natural Resources, the field's operator and one of the country's largest oil companies. In March, the agency also rejected the company's bid to restart its operation until a complete investigation had been completed.

"The circumstances surrounding Primrose are a test case for both the industry and the regulator," said Andrew Leach, a business professor at the University of Alberta. "The public needs to have confidence in the regulator that it can prevent these kinds of incidents."

The full implications of the Primrose accident are still unclear, as are the causes of the accident. But the regulators' new interest in what caused it has raised questions, more broadly, about the way oil companies are planning to tap Alberta's richest deposits.

The Primrose well uses high-pressure steam to free the oil from the sands deep underground, allowing it to rise to the top. The technique -- known as "huff and puff" -- is vaguely similar to fracking, which instead of steam uses a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to unlock the trapped oil and has led to a surge in oil production in the United States.

At issue is whether the thick rock that traps the raw oil sands, keeping them from escaping to the surface, was fractured by high steam pressure applied during the production process -- as environmentalists say was probable -- or whether Canadian Natural Resources is correct in saying that the leak was simply a malfunction.

Energy experts say the results of the Primrose investigation and the tighter regulations that may follow it could also slow oil sands production in other areas of Alberta or require potentially less efficient drilling techniques. They say that leaks underground can be particularly difficult to control and can pollute critical aquifers. The provincial regulatory agency in January suspended development in a second large but shallower oil sands field, as officials argued that more research was needed.

"We're trying to be very proactive and trying to get out ahead of this," said Stephen Smith, the vice president in charge of monitoring steam-pressure operations for the Alberta Energy Regulator. He added that there was "connective tissue" between the January order, the Primrose accident and at least one additional accident in recent years.

Mr. …

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