Expert Voices

Blowout Raises Questions About Tar-Sands Oil (Op-Ed)

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The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was created by President Gerald Ford. (Image credit: Thaiview | Shutterstock)

Danielle Droitsch is director of the Canada Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This article originally appeared on the NRDC blog Switchboard. She contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

As new evidence is revealing that the blowout of a tar-sands well has been causing oil to leak for over four months — contaminating a large area of Canada's Boreal Forest and killing animals — a new report reveals that Alberta's regulatory system to prevent and enforce tar-sands operations is lax and failing.

The blowout from Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s Primrose tar-sands drilling operation was not revealed to the public until an anonymous government scientist leaked it to the press. According to a Mother Jones article, the spill — which has released at least 4,500 barrels of tar-sands oil — was reported to have started on May 21 and was still releasing oil as of Tuesday, July 23. The ongoing blowout, coupled with the report on the province's failed regulatory program, raises questions about oversight of the tar-sands industry — especially given that neither the Alberta government nor the company has confirmed the cause of the blowout, the rate of seepage or a plan to stop the spill. It also raises questions about this particular method of tar-sands extraction, called "in situ," which is projected to be the dominant way that the industry extracts tar sands in the coming years.

This spill also underscores that, despite its outward appearance of appearing less impactful, in situ tar-sands development comes with major risks. Moreover, in situ tar sands development is significantly more carbon-intensive than tar sands strip-mining operations — an important element for the Obama administration to consider as it makes a decision over the proposed Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline.

The uncontrolled spill from the Primrose tar-sands drilling operation is located on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (where the Canadian military conducts live-fire exercises), and it has already killed dozens of animals, including beavers and loons.

The Toronto Star, which broke the story to the public, said that more than 4,500 barrels (nearly 200,000 gallons) of bitumenhave been released by the spill. At least 26,000 barrels of a tar sands and water mixture have been recovered in clean-up operations , and the blowout has contaminated almost 100 acres — or an area the size of 75 football fields.

Tar-sands drilling operations require the injection of high-pressure steam into deep reservoirs, creating cracks in underground geological formations, and essentially turning the earth into an oven so that the bitumen can be melted out. Despite the fact that they tend to have significantly greater greenhouse gas emissions than mining, fragment vast swaths of land and use a tremendous amount of water, tar-sands drilling operations are often promoted by industry as the "environmental friendly" method of tar-sands extraction. It is estimated that 80 percent of tar sands can be accessed using in situ or drilling methods.

The anonymous scientist who broke the story to the Canadian media said, "Everybody [at the company and in government] 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 in place."

This is not the first time there has been a spill of tar sands from the Primrose operations. Another release of oil occurred in 2009,and after an investigation and apparent changes to steam-injection operations, government regulators permitted Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. to resume operations. The newly created Alberta Energy Regulator issued a press releaseon July 18 (nine weeks after the spill started), which indicated the released had occurred, but failed to detail the nature of the spill, the amount that had spilled and what actions were being taken to stop the leak.

Just this week, a new report from Kevin Timoney at Treeline Ecological Research and Peter Lee at Global Forest Watch Canada reveals widespread problems in the system to oversee violations of environmental laws for preventing major leaks, like the one in Cold Lake, Alberta. The comprehensive, 600-page report reveals that less than one percent of violations from tar-sands operations are enforced. The study evaluated over 4,000 violations of Alberta's environmental laws, but found that 99 percent of those violations did not result in fines or other enforcement actions. The authors noted the Alberta environmental enforcement rate is far below that of the United States. According to the study, "the average enforcement rate for violations of the Clean Water Act in the United States for the period from 2004 to 2007 was 16 percent, over 17 times the environmental enforcement rate in Alberta's bitumen sands region." And the report also noted that of the 50 U.S. states, only three states had worse performance than Alberta.

The report details chronic failures to enforce, poor oversight, and failure to provide timely access to accurate and complete information. The report also profiles substandard safety procedures, poor communications and emergency response, and lax monitoring by industry and regulatory agencies. This has led to "systemic problems in management, reporting, monitoring, and environmental protection…," according to the report.

The report's authors reviewed over 9,000 environmental incidents or violations related to tar-sands development in northeastern Alberta during a period from 1996 to mid-2012. There was a minimum of 4,063 alleged contraventions (or perceived violations of legislation) and Alberta took enforcement actions 0.9 percent of the time. Most enforcement actions imposed only minor financial penalties, and it appears media attention and public involvement facilitated enforcement measures.

The report details numerous examples where violations of environmental rules were not reported to local communities. One such example occurred in April 2011, when a pipeline operated by Plains Midstream spilled 1.2 million gallons of oil onto boreal wetlands. The company was criticized for failing to communicate with the Lubicon Cree, an affected community, but the government of Alberta failed to take enforcement action until a public report was released by Greenpeace.

The report also indicates that the government of Alberta continuously failed to provide timely and accurate information to the public following major spills. Journalists who have attempted to investigate oil spills in Alberta have also faced several hurdles with efforts to access information. The Alberta government was given a grade of "D"in the 2012 freedom-of-information audit conducted by Newspaper Canada.

The debate over the proposed Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline has put Alberta's tar-sands operations and its regulatory system under a microscope. Government leaders in Alberta have made several claims to audiences in the United States that the province is a world leader on environmental issues. Alberta Premier Alison Redford has traveled to the United States defending Alberta's environmental record. In a USA Today editorial she said, "We stand ready to demonstrate our strong track record on responsible oil-sands development." And at another speech at the Brookings Institution, she said Alberta is "home to some of the most environmentally friendly , progressive legislation in the world." Despite these claims, there are indications that Alberta's environmental record is lacking.

Local communities living near, and affected by, tar-sands operations deserve an independent audit of the effectiveness of Alberta's regulatory system, including public reporting. And U.S. decision-makers evaluating whether to approve or reject the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline should independently evaluate Alberta's regulatory system in light of the new blowout development.

With respect to the recent blowout, the Alberta government owes the public more information, including information on the amount of oil that has leaked, the area affected, wildlife impacts, water-quality monitoring and information as to the cause of the occurrence. And, U.S. decision-makers evaluating whether to approve or reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline should independently evaluate Alberta's regulatory system in light of this new development.

This article originally appeared as Tar Sands Well Blowout Raises Questions About Alberta's Regulatory Oversight on the NRDC blog Switchboard. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on