EDMONTON - An ongoing spill of tarry bitumen in northern Alberta is focusing the world's attention on the province's new energy regulator, says an environmental think-tank.

"The way in which Alberta and Canada is managing the oilsands has already attracted significant international attention and that's because it's not possible to point to significant progress in terms of the big environmental issues," said Chris Severson-Baker of the Pembina Institute.

"When stories like this emerge, here's another problem. The regulator doesn't seem to be in control of the situation."

For weeks now, bitumen has been oozing to the surface at an oilsands project owned by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (TSX:CNQ) on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. The leak has so far released almost a million litres of bitumen and has fouled about 20 hectares of land.

The bitumen is probably being forced to the surface through cracks in overlying rock created by the company's extraction method, which uses hot, high-pressure steam to force the product up wells.

This year's spill seems similar to a 2009 release in the same spot. After that spill, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, as the regulator was then known, allowed CNRL to resume production using lower steam pressure, even though an investigation failed to discover exactly what happened.

The Alberta Energy Regulator, which replaced the conservation board earlier this summer, now has a chance to show that it plans to conduct business differently, said Severson-Baker.

"There's an opportunity to really compare and contrast how the ERCB dealt with the first incident at this same site with how they deal with it this time," he said.

There's little doubt the world is watching.

Newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to England's The Guardian have written about the CNRL spill. It also comes at a time when Alberta's and Canada's environmental record is being considered by U.S. politicians trying to judge what the impact would be of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oilsands bitumen south from the oilsands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Just last week, a major study suggested that fewer than one per cent of the industry's environmental infractions resulted in enforcement actions.

Cyclic steam stimulation is used in four oilsands projects that represent about one-third of the industry's production from in situ projects, which extract bitumen in place without digging mines.

It's well-understood technology that's been used successfully around the world for 30 years, said Brij Maini from the University of Calgary's petroleum engineering department. In some reservoirs, it's the only in-situ technique that works.

The trick is to apply enough steam pressure to crack the rock and allow the steam into the reservoir without cracking the rock so much that the bitumen is forced to the surface.

"It requires a good balance between exceeding the fracture limit, but still staying within a certain limit," he said.

In Alberta, that sweet spot is narrower.

"The problem with Alberta is that our reservoirs are very cold," Maini said. "Alberta ... projects will not work unless you use higher steam pressures."

The CNRL leak raises questions about how well that balance is understood, said Severson-Baker.

"Are we doing a good job of designing these projects, keeping in check the desire of these companies to extract as much economic return as possible while still protecting the integrity of the cap rock?"

The ball is in the new regulator's court, he suggested.

"It's up to the regulator to be willing to take that approval away because it's based on a failed design. I don't think a project can legitimately continue with a track record like this."

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  • CFB Cold Lake, CNRL

    A bitumen leak was reported at a Canadian Natural Resources oilsands operation in the weapons range part of the RCAF base in June 2013.

  • CFB Cold Lake, CNRL

    Company officials said the leak - at what it calls its Primrose operation - was caused by faulty machinery at one of the wells, affected an area of approximately 13.5 hectares and released as much as 3,200 litres of bitumen each day.

  • CFB Cold Lake, CNRL

    Preliminary tallies put the death toll from the leak at 16 birds, seven small mammals and 38 amphibians. Dozen were rescued and taken to an Edmonton centre for rehabilitation.

  • CFB Cold Lake

    As of early August 2013, more than 1.1 million litres of bitumen had been pulled from marshlands, bushes and waterways.

  • CFB Cold Lake, CNRL

    Although CNRL could not say when the leak may finally be stopped, it estimates it will likely cost more than $40 million to clean up.

  • <em>Click through for other recent spill in Alberta</em>

  • Plains Midstream

    Little Buffalo band member Melina Laboucan-Massimo scoops up July 13, 2012 what appears to oil from the pond shoreline near the site of a 4.5 million-litre Plains Midstream pipeline leak detected April 29, 2011. Photos taken at the site and released by Greenpeace of Alberta's second-worst pipeline spill suggest at least part of the site remains heavily contaminated despite company suggestions that the cleanup is complete.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    A boat passes by a boom stretching out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipelines leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of sour crude near Sundre, Alberta, on June 7 and flowed downstream in the Red Deer river to the reservoir.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    Debris pushes up against a boom as it stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    A boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipelines leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of sour crude near Sundre, Alberta, on June 7 and flowed downstream in the Red Deer river to the reservoir.

  • Plains Midstream

    A boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipelines leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of sour crude near Sundre, Alberta, on June 7 and flowed downstream in the Red Deer river to the reservoir.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    A photographer snaps a boom stretching out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipelines leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of sour crude near Sundre, Alberta, on June 7 and flowed downstream in the Red Deer river to the reservoir.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    A boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipelines leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of sour crude near Sundre, Alberta, on June 7 and flowed downstream in the Red Deer river to the reservoir.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    A worker slows traffic while a boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the Gleniffer reservoir near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipelines leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of sour crude near Sundre, Alberta, on June 7 and flowed downstream in the Red Deer river to the reservoir.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    A no swimming sign along the banks of the Gleniffer reservoir while a boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the lake near Innisfail, Alta., Friday, June 12, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipelines leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of sour crude near Sundre, Alberta, on June 7 and flowed downstream in the Red Deer river to the reservoir.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    Oil from a pipeline leak coats a pond near Sundre, Alta., Friday, June 8, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipeline leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of oil.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    Oil from a pipeline leak coats a pond near Sundre, Alta., Friday, June 8, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipeline leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of oil.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    Oil from a pipeline leak coats a pond near Sundre, Alta., Friday, June 8, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipeline leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of oil.

  • Plains Midstream Canada

    Tracks pass through oil on the banks of the Gleniffer reservoir after a pipeline leak near Sundre, Alta., on Friday, June 8, 2012. Plains Midstream Canada says one of their non-functioning pipelines leaked between 1,000-3,000 barrels of oil.

  • Enbrige's Athabasca pipeline

    Approximately 1,450 barrels of oil spilled from a pumping station along Enbridge’s Athabasca pipeline in June 2012. The spill occurred approximately 24 kilometres from Elk Point, Alta., a village located 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.

  • Lake Wabamun

    Wreckage from the August 3rd train derailment and subsequent oil spill is seen lining the shore of Lake Wabamun on Monday, August 8, 2005, as clean-up continues.

  • Lake Wabamun

    Wreckage and black oil from the August 3rd train derailment and subsequent oil spill are seen lining the shore and waters of Lake Wabamun on Monday, August 8, 2005, as clean-up continues.

  • Lake Wabamun

    White absorbent boom is seen lining the shores of Lake Wabamun, Alberta, as the clean-up effort from the August 3rd train derailment and subsequent oil spill continues on Monday, August 8, 2005.

  • Lake Wabamun

    Wreckage and black oil from the August 3rd train derailment and subsequent oil spill are seen lining the shore and waters of Lake Wabamun on Monday, August 8, 2005, as clean-up continues.

  • Lake Wabamun

    Wreckage and black oil from the August 3rd train derailment and subsequent oil spill are seen lining the shore and waters of Lake Wabamun on Monday, August 8, 2005, as clean-up continues. Lake Wabamun was severely polluted when a train carrying heavy oil derailed on August 3, 2005, spilling much of it's load into the lake.

  • Lake Wabamun

    Rail cars leak bunker fuel oil, meters from summer homes bordering Lake Wabamun, after a freight train derailed, in this August 3, 2005 file photo, near the town of Wabamun, Alta. Canadian National Railway faces an environmental charge stemming from the train derailment and oil spill at a popular Alberta lake last summer.