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Canada’s Quest to Mine Bitumen With Steam is Quietly Spelling Disaster

Since 2013 more than 12,000 barrels of steamy bitumen have erupted through fissures in the earth in Alberta

This post originally appeared in Alternatives Journal

You’ve heard the ads. Beyond the ugly open pit mines lies a different sort of oil sands, intones a friendly Cenovus voice. The difference, goes the ad, consists of some 100 gleaming steam plants in Alberta’s boreal forest where industry can safely recover oil from 450 metres beneath the ground with little impact.

The message is clear: given that 80 per cent of Canada’s bitumen is too deep to be mined, steaming it out of the ground represents a trouble-free Oz, if not a future world of innovative cleanliness.

But it’s all a grand illusion. And you can thank Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., (CNRL) a major bitumen player, for pulling back the curtain.

Alberta Oil Sands Location Tourphoto by EnergyTomorrow, on FlickrA steam mining operation in Fort McMurray, Alberta. This mining process, sometimes called “huff and puff,” forces so much pressurized fluid underground that it lifts the earth by more than a foot.

In the spring of 2013, the company sprouted massive leaks in four locations at their Primrose field in the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. The leaks simply won’t stop, and more than 12,000 barrels of steamy bitumen have since erupted through fissures in the earth as long as 100 meters. 

The uncontrollable event, which has killed many wildlife and forced the partial draining of a 53-hectare lake, now stands as the fourth-largest oil spill in the province’s history. CNRL has spent $40-million to date mopping up the junk crude and hasn’t stopped producing bitumen.

The company’s Cold Lake operation injects highly pressured steam 450 meters into the ground for a month and then pumps like hell from the same wellbore. It is not an earth-friendly operation. This so-called “huff and puff” process forces so much pressurized fluid underground that the operation uplifts the earth by more than a foot. As the frothy bitumen is pumped out, the land then subsides. Satellites can record the heaving and subsiding from space.

All of this movement can play havoc with wellbores. As of 2009, more than one-third of all well-casing failures in the province (more than 1,700) occurred at steam-plant operations in the oil sands.

But continuous steam injection can do more than shear off wellbores. It can also deform a bitumen formation so badly as to “reduce rock strength, induce new fractures or re-activate existing fractures posing contained risk of containment or breach of cap rock,” say experts at the giant oil servicing company Schlumberger. Furthermore, the fracturing of cap rock “can provide pathways for bitumen and steam to flow to aquifers or to the surface, causing significant risk to safety and the environment.”

And that’s probably what happened at CNRL’s Primrose operation, where a very worried oil sands regulator is now conducting a major investigation. The company blames the bitumen disaster on the simultaneous failure of the four wellbores. But that’s unlikely given that some of those wells are located as much as 15 km apart.

As a consequence, cap rock integrity has become the new focus of concern in the oil sands. Broken cap rocks are not uncommon. In 2006, a Total E&P Canada operation blew a hole in a cap rock and created a 300-metre-wide depression in the forest north of Fort McMurray. A report tardily issued four years later by the regulator described the accident as a “catastrophic event.”

Meanwhile, steam has been leaking to the surface or into groundwater or other companies’ wellbores throughout the region. Steaming shallow deposits of bitumen just 150 metres below the ground poses so many risks that the provincial regulator has suspended all operations in more than 100 townships due to “the risk of steam and reservoir fluids being released at surface.”

In addition to busting cap rocks, Alberta’s steam plants have experienced chronic cost overruns, pollution issues from hydrogen sulfide and poor production records due to the rising amount of steam needed to extract even one barrel of bitumen.

There is more bad news: the carbon footprint of steam-production methods is three times greater than that of conventional mining projects. The steam process’ impact on land is nearly double that of open pit mines due to their extremely high consumption of natural gas. And energy returns for the projects match the poor returns of biofuels such as ethanol.

So yes, there is a different and very extreme oil sands player out there. And it’s in big trouble. 

Andrew Nikiforuk
Andrew Nikiforuk writes regularly for The Tyee about the politics and economics of the energy industry. His latest book, The Energy of Slaves, examines the vulnerabilities of high-spending energy cultures.

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