This backgrounder accompanies No Home on the Range, an article simultaneously published by The Dominion, taking a look at Indigenous resistance to the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.
Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) is a Calgary-based publicly traded oil and gas company with land-based operations in Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan and offshore operations in the North Sea and off the Atlantic coast of Africa. CNRL’s Primrose tar sands operations in northeastern Alberta are located inside the boundaries of the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR), established in 1953 on Dene and Cree lands, and access to the area is controlled by the Department of National Defence. Agreements between Alberta and Canada for have been in place since the 1970s to facilitate resource exploitation in the western part of the CLAWR. Indigenous resistance to military control of traditional territories continues.
Cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) is used for thermal in situ tar sands extraction at the company’s Primrose operations. “[The] method involves injecting high-pressure steam into a reservoir over a prolonged period of time. As heat softens the bitumen and water dilutes and separates the bitumen from the sand, the pressure creates cracks and openings through which the bitumen can flow back into the steam-injector wells,” according to the Alberta Energy Regulator. After weeks of steam injections, the flow direction of the horizontal wells is then reversed to extract the oil.
The provincial regulatory body for oil, gas, tar sands and coal in Alberta is now the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), a wholly industry-funded corporation created through the Responsible Energy Development Act, passed in December 2012. In 2013, the AER took over the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB)’s functions and will soon also be taking on certain regulatory activities related to public lands, water and the environment from Alberta’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
January 3, 2009: A tar sands spill was discovered near a wellhead in the Primrose East area of CNRL’s operations inside the CLAWR. As a result, the ERCB put limits on the steam injection volumes the company is permitted to inject per cycle, but permitted continued operations despite inconclusive findings as to what exactly happened.
January 8, 2013: The ERCB released its Investigation Report regarding the January 2009 tar sands spill at CNRL’s Primrose East operations. “The ERCB agrees [with CNRL] that the bitumen emulsion pathway cannot be identified with certainty based on the available data,” states the report.
May 20, 2013: Two spills were reported at CRNL’s Primrose East tar sands operations inside the CLAWR.
June 8, 2013: A third spill was reported at the company’s Primrose East operations.
June 17, 2013: The AER took over oil, gas, tar sands and coal regulatory functions from the ERCB. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, landowners and others have questioned the new regulatory body and the province’s choice of Gerry Protti to head the AER as the entity’s first Chair of the Board of Directors. Protti is a former Encana executive and a founding member of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an oil industry lobby group.
June 24, 2013: The latest tar sands spill was discovered at CNRL’s operations inside the CLAWR. According to the ongoing incident report on the AER website, the June 24 entry notes: “Unnamed standing body of water impacted by bitumen coming to surface from underground source.”
June 25, 2013: The AER announced the launch of a new online incident-reporting tool “to provide improved public notice of energy-related incidents reported to the regulator.”
June 27, 2013: The AER issued a news release announcing the CNRL spill. The affected body of water was off-lease, stated the AER, but few details were reported at the time.
July 18, 2013: The AER announced steaming restrictions at CNRL operations due to the spills. Steam injection operations were suspended within one kilometre of the Primrose South incident and limitations were imposed throughout the Primrose North and South areas. "Until we investigate these incidents, better understand the cause of these releases, and what steps CNRL will take to take to prevent them, we are taking measures as a precaution," stated the AER.
July 19, 2013: Leaked CNRL documents came to light as journalist Emma Pullman continued her coverage of the unfolding situation with a co-authored article published by the Toronto Star. “The documents indicate that, since cleanup started in May, some 26,000 barrels of bitumen mixed with surface water have been removed, including more than 4,500 barrels of bitumen,” according to the article, which also quoted an unnamed government scientist who had been working on-site. “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,” said the scientist.
July 25, 2013: A rally was held outside CNRL’s office in Calgary. Also on July 25, CNRL issued an update about the incident at its Primrose operations. “[Based] on all the evidence gathered to date, we believe this rise to surface involves mechanical failures of wellbores in the vicinity of the impacted areas,” stated CNRL. The company reduced the focus of its clean-up efforts from an initial area of 20.7 hectares to 13.5 hectares. “Deceased wildlife includes 11 birds, 4 small mammals and 21 amphibians,” according to the update.
July 26, 2013: After being referred to by the company as a “slough” and by the regulator as an “unnamed body of water,” the impacted water body was identified as a lake by the AER in its July 26 entry in the ongoing incident report: “Impacted lake area has been reduced to 12 hectares as skimming and vegetation cutting progresses.”
July 29, 2013: Some interesting comments by AER Office of Public Affairs spokesperson Cara Tobin surfaced. “There’s two things – one is control and one is containment,” said Tobin, according to Desmog Canada contributor Carol Linnitt’s post. Containment amounts to identifying and delineating the perimeter of the impacted area, said Tobin. “In this case, this is still an ongoing incident. There is no control on this incident,” she said.
July 31, 2013: CNRL issued a news release and held a conference call, providing updates on spill impacts and clean-up. Despite the restrictions imposed by the AER, the company stated it still expects to meet the 2013 productions targets for its tar sands operations.
August 1, 2013: "Because it is within the water body we physically can't see where it is coming up," said CNRL incident commander Kirk Skocylas of the underground source of one of the spills.
August 2, 2013: The AER issued a news release about their response to the spills, the total volume of which the regulator now reports as being 1060 cubic metres—more than one million litres. "We do not currently have the evidence or data to support any conclusions as to the cause of the incident," said AER CEO Jim Ellis, according to the AER news release.
August 8, 2013: CNRL is hosting a media tour of its Primrose operations.